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

Order. Why?

Question from Gene:
How did reality come to be structured such that there are fundamental laws of nature and a hierarchy of intelligence in the natural world?

Answer by SmartLX:
The “hierarchy of intelligence” is the easy part. Sentient life forms on this planet have diversified and subsequently evolved in different directions, and some animals’ brains grew more than others, so different animals have wildly different levels of intelligence. Individuals are also subject to different genes and environmental factors, so even within one species there are relative geniuses and relative idiots. It’s exactly what we would expect in the circumstances. If all animals with intelligence had exactly the same amount of it, now that would be a remarkable thing.

As for the apparently universal consistency of the laws of nature, I don’t know why they’re there, though of course if they weren’t so consistent then I wouldn’t have a functioning brain to wonder about it.

Maths

It might simply be that way as a result of the physical properties of all matter and energy. The constants might have varied significantly in some ancient epoch, and stabilised around the time of the Big Bang (if that phrase even makes sense given the nature of time) so that we’re now enjoying the benefits of a stable universe. There could be many universes, some with fixed constants and some without. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the reason.

Let’s say, though I won’t assume at this point, that you believe a god structured the laws of nature the way they are. If I don’t know how it happened and admit as much, is that a good reason for me to adopt your position? No, because it’s merely an assertion. There’s no substantive evidence for the existence of a god, let alone its influence on the form of the universe. I have no desire to grasp at any answer presented to me if there’s nothing to support the idea that the answer is right.

We can take this a little further. Let’s say that we did both believe that there’s an almighty god, but didn’t adhere to the specific doctrine of any one religion. Could we then say confidently that He structured the universe? The answer is still no, because there’s still no evidence that it happened. Unless we can establish that uniformity can ONLY be deliberately structured, which we can’t, our god might only have happened across our universe and adopted it like one adopts a puppy.

Finally, if we both adhered to the doctrine of a religion that stated that God structured the universe, we would both accept that idea. We would not, however, have arrived at this particular position through logic, other than through the logical fallacy of accepting an argument from authority.

So, if even taking the existence of a god as a given doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that a god structured the universe, we certainly can’t arrive at that conclusion when the existence of a god is in question. As for using the idea to argue for the existence of the god, forget it.

Everything’s A God These Days

Question from John:
I’m having difficulty grasping the concept of an “atheist.” Perhaps you can clarify it for me.

The concept of a person who doesn’t have belief in a particular god, or a person who is certain that a particular god doesn’t exist, is quite clear. (For example, a person who doesn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian god, or who is convinced that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist.) That’s different, though, from someone who doesn’t believe in ANY god of any sort.

A person might claim that they are an “atheist” because there is no scientifically-acceptable evidence for ANY god. Fair enough, as long as that person is also agnostic. But, is there really no evidence for any sort of god? Most atheists would challenge the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of dinosaurs in spite of the fact that no (non-feathered) dinosaurs exist today, and in spite of the fact that there is no direct evidence of them. (So-called “dinosaur bones” dug out of the earth aren’t bones at all. They’re stones with impressions or forms that resemble bones.)

Wouldn’t a highly technologically-advanced extraterrestrial meet every criterion for a god, as dictionaries define the word “god”? (Like many English words, the term “supernatural” has multiple definitions. Some popular dictionaries define “supernatural” as defying natural law in principle, while others define it as appearing to, or seeming to, defy natural law. Go ahead and do a survey of dictionary definitions for yourself.) If “appearing to defy natural law” is one popular definition for the term “supernatural,” then technologically-advanced beings have “supernatural” powers and meet any and every definition of a polytheistic god.

Modern, technological humans have “supernatural” powers, too, compared to tribal peoples. We can bring the dead back to life, fly through the air faster than the speed of sound, and vaporize a forest with the push of a button. Could Zeus or Thor do much better? Even if our powers don’t seem fully god-like now, they will be in a few generations. Additionally, is there not ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations with technology far superior to our own? We don’t need to see and touch a living dinosaur to accept the reality of their existence. Do we need to make first contact with an extraterrestrial species to accept the reality of their existence, given the data we do have?

Is the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of any sort of god a reasonable justification for being an “atheist.”

Answer by SmartLX:
The more you broaden the definition of a god, the more likely it will include something which exists, because more entities both known and hypothetical fall into the category. Hyper-advanced aliens are one thing, but you talk about counting modern humans as gods, which means you’re taking into account practically any possible use of the word “god”. In a nutshell, atheists do not.

Atheism is literally the absence of theism, which is religious belief in a god figure. You could broaden that too, but belief in humans or belief in aliens doesn’t generally qualify as theism. The ontology of a true “god” is often debated, but enough of its hypothetical qualities are near-universally agreed upon by believers and non-believers alike that they can have a coherent discussion about gods together, and one more or less settled point is that a god does not have a natural origin. As Richard Dawkins wrote, advanced aliens might well appear to be gods, but they wouldn’t BE gods because they would have come about naturally like we did, probably via a process like Darwinian natural selection – unless of course they had a hand in our development, in which case they came about MORE naturally than we did.

To look at this from another angle, consider that if there were no religion, no one would bother to identify as an atheist, any more than the term “abolitionist” persisted in America after slavery was successfully abolished there. Vocal, activist atheism is a reaction to religious faith, and thus concerns itself with the same kinds of gods that people believe in, the gods people worship, and importantly the gods in whose names people act. In other words, theistic gods. Atheists claim that there is no good evidence for the gods which are the subjects of religious faith. This is not redundant or circular because the faithful do not define their gods in terms of atheism. They’ll happily tell you what their gods are like, what they’ve done and what they want from us.

Since you mentioned agnosticism: Most atheists are also agnostic because they do not claim to KNOW there are no gods (as gods are defined above). They will make the positive claim that there’s no available evidence for gods, but absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Besides, incontrovertible evidence might turn up tomorrow in Guam for all we know.

Incidentally, you completely lost me when you said there’s “ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations”. There’s currently no unambiguous evidence at all, just a lot of probability-based arguments along the lines of the Drake equation and the unsupported claims of a community of UFO enthusiasts.

If there is a god, wouldn’t faith be insulting to it?

Todays question comes from DK who asks…

Name: DK
Message: I have read enough of the questions and responses to gain a general understanding of why you have chosen to be an atheist…  In saying that, I do believe there is a God.  I was raised in a Christian home, and have been taught Biblical principles my entire life.  I am actually a student pastor at the church I attend, and I am in the process of creating a message series proving the existence of God through Biblical and physical evidence.  My belief, much like yours, is that Christians, as a whole, are viewed as ignorant and hypocritical, because their behavior and the claims they make personally, come from very little understanding of who God is and why they actually believe in him.  For most, Christianity is just what they were always taught was “the right thing to believe.”  Without a belief in God being built on a firm foundation of evidence, any belief you express in that regard, whether in word or deed, will lack conviction and lead to instability.  While I am still searching for all the answers, my conviction comes from having personally experienced God’s intervention in my life.  I am not referring to a sense of a being I have never seen that I have made a blind assumption is the presence of God; I am referring to him making a way for me in times when I, despite my greatest effort, could not accomplish something or meet a desperate need.  Ultimately, whether you believe in Christianity or science, Creation or Evolution, we will all be searching for answers until the day we die, some of which we may never be able to answer completely or even at all.  In an effort to gain a better understand of your perspective as an atheist, have you considered the possibility that you are attempting to justify your position from an intellectually finite perspective, when the answers we are all looking for come from an infinite origin?  The Bible says in Proverbs that men judge the outward appearance; God judges the heart.  While having enough understanding of God to be confident in your belief of Him is im!
portant, we can allow our relentless pursuit of understanding God through everything we see to push us away from Him when we don’t find all the answers, when the truth is, we will never have all the answers.  Even a scientist when he verifies a hypothesis understands that, while he may have uncovered a portion of the truth, there is still much left to discover.  Does that make his belief in his original findings any less true?  God does not expect us to have all the answers before we trust Him.  He only wants to bring us peace in the midst of uncertainty – to bring joy and hope to our hearts in a world that is in a constant state of moral decay.  He wants us to trust that if we believe in Him instead of working tirelessly to solve a problem on our own, He can help us through the trials we face.  However, He has given us the free will to choose whether we give Him the chance to do so.  I say these things not to preach at you, but from the first hand experience of, at one time, being in your shoes-of questioning the existence of God.  You cannot experience God’s true purpose until you stop trying to answer everything with your head, and give Him the opportunity to change your heart.  That is the choice He has given you.  What are your thoughts?

Great question and I want to get right to what’s bothering me about what you just said, in fact, it’s one of my biggest problems with the judeo-christian belief system.

It’s dishonest.

Let’s for a minute assume that there is a god and that it wants us to find it. How has it set things up for us to determine how everything else exists? What is the criteria for determining existence? In short, ( I go into greater detail here. ) it’s through objective, verifiable means. So why is it, then when religion comes around, it says that “god” wants us to find it not with the rational, the intelligence, and the brain that said god gave to us, but in a way that’s exactly the opposite? Remember, god through it’s creation has already taught us how to determine what exists and what doesn’t. So why ask it’s creations to toss that out the window? It’s like telling us that dirt is water, the sun is dark, things fall upwards, and that women get pregnant from kissing. We know it’s not how the world, ( which in this scenario has a god ) was set up.

If there is a god, faith would be insulting to it.

A lot of believers at this point like to tell me that faith is a test, and that we need to let go of everything that said god has already taught us, and believe in it despite all of that. Well isn’t that exactly what a person or organization who wants you to think that god is on their side would tell you since they can’t actually produce a god? They would try to convince you to stop thinking about it. After all, you’re human and can’t begin to understand the ways of god. They would tell you that it’s better to believe without evidence because it would show their god that you really trust it. They would show you places in the world that match places in their stories and try to use that as evidence. They would villainize anyone who didn’t agree with them, telling you how evil and immoral everyone else is, and how you need to convince them to believe as you do for their own sake. They would tell you that everything good in your life was given to you by their invisible, anti irrational criteria for a god. It’s insidious and it’s dishonest. I believe that it can be said that the only honest seekers of the divine are atheists.

There was one more thing that you said that bothers me. You said, “I am referring to him making a way for me in times when I, despite my greatest effort, could not accomplish something or meet a desperate need.” I hear this from time to time from believers, and it disturbs me not only because of the underline message of human devaluation, but because I can’t believe that a loving god would want it’s creation to think so low of itself. I go into deeper explanation in my post titled “How do I overcome adversity without a god?

I hope this and the other two articles I mentioned here answered your question for you. If you have any further thoughts please feel free to use the comment section below.

Christianity vs Science

Question from Moonrunez:
Yo, talk about cover ups and denying bull, I have been trying to find books that list how Christianity killed and abused science, the study thereof, the torture and death of people studying science, and all I get is how Christianity started science, really, who was Hypatia? N.american Indians practised Tesla mathematics thousands of years before Tesla, look at the serpent mound, or the astro-mathematics of Chaco canyon, not one ounce of land has been gained in N. or S.america except by killing American Indians for practicing witchcraft. this was commonly done to get land, Christians from pagans, Christians from Christians, no one seems to know that one half the town of Salem was accused of witchcraft, the ones who admitted as much lost all there land to the other Christians, why? Why the bullshit, or how Christianity is the cause of extinction and justification for animal abuse and scientific study, animals don`t have souls, Black Beauty was written by a man who witnessed the abuse of animals in his time and wrote about it, and I conclude do you know why I have the right to face my accuser, because in the witch burning times you could accuse your neighbor of heresy have them killed, via torture first to get land, that is why the constitution has this, I can`t find a single book listing groups of scientists, and the types of science destroyed, all I find is Christian websites stating they created science, those idiot Egyptians never built pyramids, had math, science, knew the world was round, star charts, physics, medicine, herb lore, surgery, writing, read 42 laws of Mayet! Can you recommend books that tell the truth of how science etc. was held back by Christianity, thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, Christians appear to have a lot of material for arguing that Christianity was responsible for the rise of science because so many of the great scientists were Christians. Where the argument stumbles is in establishing that their Christianity actually helped in their work, rather than that they were simply great scientists who, like nearly everyone else in those times and places, happened to be Christian. People like Hypatia, who was a fourth century Egyptian pagan scholar, demonstrate that plenty of good work was going on outside of “Christendom”.

Anyway, the persecution of individual scientists isn’t good material for a lot of books because there aren’t many well-known cases. There’s Galileo, of course, and in very much the same category there’s Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for claiming there were planets outside the solar system (possibly with life on them). William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, and Adam Sedgewick set out to investigate the Biblical flood, but ended up dispelling their own beliefs in it and brought condemnation upon themselves from the Church. Feel free to add more, folks, but that about does it for the famous ones.

It’s worth being very specific about the measurable effect Christianity has had on science, rather than simply saying that it held it back. For as long as Christianity has seen itself as a political power in the world, it has encouraged technological advances to keep itself powerful. Strong armies, good medicines and so on were extremely important.

The issue is that Christianity contains a number of doctrines (claims, if you like) which we now know contradict the scientific evidence and have been accepted by the majority as simply false. Special creation of each plant and animal is a big one, but there’s also the idea that the Earth or the Sun is the centre of the universe, that diseases are caused by demons instead of germs and that stars are small enough to be capable of “falling from the sky” onto the Earth. Some of these are claimed outright by the Bible, others were added later by popes and other authorities. Once the reality became clear in each case, even if the scientific community accepted it, majority Christian populations were very slow to adopt the new thinking because it contradicted something that was supposedly sacred. This wasn’t enough to stop the science from advancing, but it sure slowed it down. Scientists need funding and freedom, and the religious tend to be in positions where they can allow or deny both.

And now a little surprise: I didn’t say there weren’t any books at all. In 1896, Andrew Dickson White wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, summarising every conflict he could find. That link is to the entire book, hosted at the University of Michigan. It’s been derided by theologians and accommodationists as propaganda, but whatever you think of it you can’t deny that it’s all there.

There’s Nothing, And Then There’s NOTHING

Question from Cherry:
I’ve heard the theory from Krauss about how you get something from nothing, but if you don’t have multiverses, laws, quantum mechanics, vacuums, particles, empty space, energy, matter, infinite singularity, or potential how can something come into existence? I’ve heard the whole thing about when antimatter and matter cancels itself out or positive and negative cancel out and then you have nothing, but if that pops back into existence it couldn’t have been long gone, it had to have just changed form and I’m not referring to nothing as a zero vacuum or being unstable. I’m referring to nothing as NO THING existing. If you START at the beginning with nothing I listed above existing, I don’t see how it could pop into existence. Say your hand is absolutely no thing existing and you want a chicken egg to pop into it, or like and unborn child that is not conceived, it doesn’t come into existence unless someone makes it happen. It just can’t appear because if you have nothing, nothing can make it. and don’t say it was in a zero vacuum. Again, I’m NOT referring to Krauss’ definition of nothing. I’m saying if you START with the absence of anything, nothing, like the examples I gave, then tell me how something can come into existence?

Answer by SmartLX:
I honestly don’t know. This does not matter, for three reasons.

1. To take the lack of an answer as an argument that it’s impossible without a god is an argument from ignorance; just because the explanation is not known does not mean there is no possible explanation. This particular fallacy has been coming up a LOT.

2. We don’t know that we did start with nothing, either in the way Krauss means or in the way you mean. Even if it’s completely impossible for something to come from nothing, this doesn’t necessitate an extra entity like a god until we establish that there ever was actually nothing. The simpler explanation, working solely from the ordinary law of conservation of matter and energy, is that there was always something.

3. God isn’t nothing. To posit that God started the universe and then immediately say God didn’t have to come from anywhere or anything is to make two assertions where one will do: that the universe didn’t have to either. Divine creation is not a simpler explanation, it’s just the one that meets the religious criterion that a god be necessary to the process at some point. I often say that any restriction you place on the universe to necessitate a god must immediately be broken to allow for a god.

From Soup To Fish

Question from Wilson:
I am not an expert in biology just warning you, so feel free to enlighten me!

Correct me if I am wrong but evolutionists believe that life originated from a soup filled with amino acids or something along those lines. But there are a whole range of complex and simple microorganisms each with precise roles and functions almost like a program? And correct me again if I am wrong, now the cells function in a certain way due to a specific set of instructions in their DNA…how do you explain the exact precise instruction that each one of these different microorganisms have without there being an intelligent creator…finally I am also wondering how a bunch of amino acids decided to come together to make a microorganism and how that tiny cell decided itself that it needs to reproduce and how the heck microorganisms turn into a fish without a creator and if you’re gonna use time as an answer then what is the probability of such an event occurring for even a simple cell?

(Just as a lot of atheists find the idea of God absurd I find Evolution completely absurd)

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not an expert in biology either, but a little research in response to things like this can teach you a lot, and I’ve been at it for a few years now. I’m still learning of course; while I write these answers I’ve usually got multiple other tabs open for reference material.

Before I go into details, the same logical problem applies here as to the last question I answered: the argument from ignorance. That’s not an insult, it’s the proper name for a specific fallacy where because you personally don’t know how something could happen, you assume it didn’t. Even if I had no answers for any of these, we would not be justified in jumping to the conclusion of a god until any other possibilities were not just dismissed but actually ruled out (or at the very least, actual probabilities were assigned to them).

I’ll try to address each of your points, but each of my points may not correspond to just one of yours or to the order of yours.

– There are multiple hypotheses about the origin of life from non-life (abiogenesis), and the “primordial soup” idea is one of the classic front-runners. Here’s a list of the current ones.

– Amino acids could occur naturally, as was demonstrated in the 50s, but a lot of different amino acids and other materials had to come together in just the right way to make the first simple proteins and genes. That’s a big factor reducing the probability that it would happen. However, there are three factors of a comparable scale which raised the probability: the sheer amount of material being constantly shoved against itself by natural forces, the huge number of different combinations that could have had the same effect, and finally the vast amount of time you mention – by current estimates, about one billion years from the formation of the Earth to the emergence of the first life form.

– The first life had DNA, or an equivalent like RNA, with one simple instruction: “Use the material around you to make another of yourself.” This was not an intelligent command, it was just something its physical makeup drove it to do, like a pinwheel spinning in the wind because of its shape. If it was in an environment full of the same material of which it was made, then this was straightforward: break evenly in two, then have each half absorb its own weight in raw material, then repeat. This is how microorganisms still do it today.

– Once life existed and was able to reproduce, it began to diversify. Slight imperfections in the self-copying process produced different offspring, and some of those differences were carried forward to the next generation. Whichever differences made it easier to survive and procreate, the creatures with those features tended to grow in number relative to the others. At some point a set of single-celled organisms joined together and shared their genetic material; the experiment was successful, and the first multicellular life came about. (Perhaps it had occurred before, but in the wrong conditions, and everything that tried it died.) At a certain point, small amounts of calcium became part of the essential material in the “body”, forming rigid structures; this helped with self-defense, and the viability of bones was established. Every tiny change that came about had to compete with other changes and come out on top, so every change that persisted had to have some benefit (or at least not be a hindrance), and thus a number of useful features began to accumulate. It’s been so long now that living things and their genes seem to be made of nothing but useful features, though some superseded components (like the appendix) have yet to be eliminated entirely.

I recommend reading at least a couple of books on evolution, just so you can know what the theory actually says before deciding whether it’s so unlikely. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin is about to be accompanied by a TV show. Richard Dawkins’ early book The Blind Watchmaker is a great primer, and has little or none of his recent anti-religious material that puts believers off him. Just don’t restrict yourself only to books on evolution by creationists and/or Intelligent Design proponents, because all they do is claim that various things are impossible when at worst we just don’t know how they happen – and sometimes when we actually do know.

The Human Body: The Amazing Multitudinous Dichotomy

Question from Robert:
Message: To whom it may concern: How can you explain the amazing complexity of human beings? The average human body has between 75 to 100 trillion cells. If no God, how could trillions of cells, which have no brain, collect themselves together and then change into all the highly specialized cells of the human body?

Also it takes a man and woman to create a baby. Therefore, a male and female body would have had to evolve at exactly the same time~! And a hermaphroditic human being still poses the same problem. The male and female parts would have needed to evolve — AT THE SAME EXACT TIME~! That is absolutely impossible.

Answer by SmartLX:
Didn’t actually go looking for answers to these, did you? You immediately took them to be ideal rhetorical blunt objects to beat any “Darwinist” into silence. The second one isn’t even a question, and you claim it’s impossible; this is not the language of someone who genuinely wants to know. Even if there were no answers to either one, to assume that there is no possible explanation without actually ruling any out is an argument from ignorance. Thing is, there are quite reasonable answers to each.

Today there are plenty of living things with no brain, and they assemble themselves just fine. Even the creatures with brains must start their self-assembly before the brain is formed, so brains have little or nothing to do with it. One cell automatically divides into two, then four, then eight and so on, held together with membranes. The DNA contained in each and shared by all contains the necessary information to allow each of these “stem cells” to metamorphose into a skin cell, a brain cell, a liver cell or whatever is needed. The cells can send biochemical signals to each other, so for example a cell is informed that there are enough lung cells for the moment and it becomes a bone cell instead. Once enough of an organ has come together, it reflexively begins its specific function: the brain manipulates electrical energy, the kidneys process liquids, the bones produce blood cells.

As for why there are so many cells in a body, there are many factors that limit the size of a living thing but for us none of them really kick in until the trillions. There’s enough food to feed them, they’re light enough not to collapse under their own weight, they’re strong enough not to break apart without significant force. There are obvious advantages of having so many of them together, too: they can defend themselves against similarly large threats, huge numbers of cells can be cut away or killed while the rest survive, they can reproduce fast enough to replace short-lived cells like skin cells. Once early single-celled organisms first fused together and shared their DNA about one billion years ago, there was nothing to stop them from amassing more and more cells per organism for all that time. Exponential growth has led to the huge conglomerates that are modern plants and animals.

In the same fashion that cells differentiate into many different types, the human body as a whole is triggered by its chromosomes to specialise as one of two types, male or female. (Sometimes this goes wrong: the body gets mixed signals and you get intersex babies, or hermaphrodites.) In our evolutionary history this would have started as a much less pronounced difference between two groups in the one microscopic species. Importantly, they remained part of the same species because they exchanged genetic material directly, perhaps by simply pushing it through their cell walls. It immediately conferred an advantage in terms of survival and procreation because the DNA of every new offspring was a recombination of two sets instead of a clone of just one. More new combinations, more mutations and overall faster evolution. (This effect has been observed directly in adjacent populations of small fish, some of which reproduce heterosexually and some unisexually. The ones who have sex with each other build immunity to new diseases in fewer generations.) Once that was happening, the differences within the species were free to develop further, and a similar distinction was already present in every other species that descended from it.

Picking various amazing things about the body (or our planet, or the universe) and claiming they’re unachievable without a god is a terrible way to logically arrive at the necessity of a god, partly because of the argument from ignorance but mostly because there’s usually been a lot of work done to determine the method and it’s liable to be plonked in front of you. This approach is however an excellent way to reassure believers, who are less likely to research a claim that supports their beliefs, that they are justified in their faith. Consider the possibility that this is the spirit in which these ideas were conveyed to you, because they just plain don’t work on atheists.