Irreducible Complexity and Irredeemable Credulity

Question from Tomas:
What is your take on Irreducible Complexity? From what I have read, it appears to be Intelligent Design in a new wrapper but it does have some new arguments to it.

Also, it seems like any new religious “hypothesis” on the existence of God (or any god) is an old one that is simply retold to account for any existing argument against it. Isn’t that proof that their “hypotheses” are just efforts to grasp at straws since none of them have held up against any scrutiny?

Why can’t people who claim to believe in God (or supernatural entity) just simply have faith? Why must they try to prove it with facts which ultimately disprove their God?

Answer by SmartLX:
For those who came in late, irreducible complexity is the idea that certain biological mechanisms such as the eye and the bacterial flagellum cannot have evolved gradually, because if they were one step less complex or if they were missing one component then they wouldn’t work at all, which is not beneficial and therefore would not be naturally selected. It’s a specific type of the general creationist argument that evolution can’t have produced something or other.

If something were actually established as genuinely irreducibly complex, then by definition it really couldn’t have evolved. Where it falls over is that nothing has ever been established as such. The mechanisms and physical features which are presented as irreducibly complex invariably have very good explanations of how they likely evolved. These explanations usually (always?) pre-date the idea of irreducible complexity, sometimes by over a century, which means those using the argument haven’t even checked to see if it’s valid for their chosen biological object.

To give you a general idea of the explanations that exist, before we move on, there are a few possible sources of the kind of complexity that can appear irreducible.
– Multiple components can evolve in tandem.
– A slightly less complex version of something might have served an entirely different purpose until one last mutation turned it to its current function.
– A delicate structure might have formed in the presence of other supporting structures which were later dismantled and discarded, like scaffolding.

My series on the Great Big Arguments covers almost every kind of argument for God that it’s possible to make. Even the latest apologetics are heavily based on what has come before, to the extent that after 9 pieces I really don’t know what further Great Big Arguments I can write about. Even the last one was only on a variation. (Folks, let me know if I’ve missed something.)

An apologist would say that just because an argument has not been universally acknowledged as sound doesn’t mean it isn’t dead right, and the fact that people reject the arguments for God doesn’t mean He’s not real (and it’ll be their own problem when they face judgement). I say that just because an argument has been regularly refuted for years, decades or even centuries doesn’t mean it can’t still convince people who don’t know the refutations, and therefore pretty much all of the existing arguments are still useful when proselytising. Some organisations (such as dedicated apologetics ministry CARM) have actually advised against using certain convoluted arguments, but even these archaic rejects still crop up everywhere.

Some believers do keep their faith to themselves; it’s just that since we always hear from the bible-bashers instead, it’s easy to forget about the quiet ones. Those who do try to spread the faith, apart from simply wanting those around them to agree with them, are often commanded to do so by their religious leaders at all levels. It’s certainly easy to interpret most holy texts as demanding followers to recruit. Religions themselves would not have survived so long or become so popular if conversion and assimilation wasn’t an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. It’s a part that some believers reject, but those who embrace the call of the missionary are motivated to do the work for everyone.

An Atheist Pastor

Question from Pastor Tim:
For the last six years I have been a youth pastor at a church I grew up in. I met my wife in this church and “we” plan to raise our kids in this church as well. A year ago I enrolled in Bible college and I became extremely interested in knowing everything there is to know about Christianity, the origin of the Bible, and also other religions. This is where my current problem began.

You see, the more I learned the more I realized that the Bible is a complete fabrication. At first I just had a few doubts but now I realize just how crazy the whole thing really is. I’m on the verge of being kicked out of school for some of the questions I’ve been asking. I’m trying to save face at church but I teach dozens of kids about a God I no longer believe in. I know you’re probably getting a kick out of this but for me it is total hell (pun intended). Just the other day my senior pastor wanted to know what has gotten into me and I wanted to tell him but it would just kill my wife, her family and mine.

I feel like a robot and I dread Sunday school. It makes me wonder though if there are others at church that feel the same but keep it to themselves for fear of being socially outcast. I have no one to talk to – everyone around me is out of their minds. It’s a holy ghost charismatic church. You know – the whole speaking in tongues – slain in the spirit deal?

I have been trying to teach less about god and more historical significance of stuff in the Bible but I feel like a total fraud and I know this is not what the parents want for their kids. I want so bad to come out but I just can’t; our whole families go to this church. I think if I tell her it will lead to divorce. I love my wife and still believe strongly in a lot of the good values taught in the Bible. Something has got to give, please help!

Answer by SmartLX:
Tim, it sounds like it sucks to be you, and believe me when I say this does not make me happy. I don’t do this often, but I’ve changed your first name in your “question” so that someone in your family or congregation doesn’t stumble across this site and peg you. I’m not saying that “coming out” to your community as an atheist is necessarily the wrong thing to do, but if you go for it you should definitely wait until you’re ready.

The good news is that you are far from alone. May I introduce the Clergy Project, an online community specifically created (partly by Daniel Dennett) for members of the clergy who have lost their faith. They’ll have far better advice than me on dealing with your still-religious friends and family, telling your secret, making a living after leaving the church and so on. They’ve had a lot of good publicity lately, so you can go in with your eyes open. Importantly, they are completely confidential until you decide to go public, which you may choose not to.

I urge you to present yourself to the Clergy Project, because people in your unfortunate situation are the very reason it exists. Dennett conducted a study beforehand which found huge numbers of non-believing clergy, most of them feeling just as trapped as you. I say again, you are not alone.

Why isn’t evolution completely impossible?

Question from Abdul:
How can a undirected process create DNA that is way more complex than Microsoft or a quantum computer?

Simplicity cannot create complexity.

I don’t get Darwinian evolution, can you guys please help me out.

Answer by SmartLX:
Abdul, I thank you for correctly referring to evolution as an undirected process. Many who challenge it make a point of calling it a random process, which it certainly is not.

Complexity can indeed emerge from simplicity. The laws of the universe allow order and information to increase in a given area, usually with the help of an influx of energy. Otherwise there would be no increases in complexity at all, even with intelligent assistance; buildings could not be erected, coherent thoughts could not be assembled and ink could not be arranged to form words. Practically nothing we do would be possible, and physics wouldn’t be able to explain anything at all.

If an increase in order and complexity is physically possible, then how does it happen without guidance? It can definitely happen by chance, such as when the letters in alphabet soup float into the order of a word or a name, but just as often it happens by deterministic physical mechanisms doing their own thing. Evolution gets its raw material from mutations, which can duplicate genes in a sequence or recombine them in many different ways.

Once the mutations have happened, some life forms have the mutation and some don’t. If the mutation has any effect, positive or negative, on the likelihood that a life form will survive and procreate, then over multiple generations the proportions of the population with and without the mutation will change. Over thousands of generations, mutations upon mutations can have profound effects on the nature of the life forms. Life has had about 3 billion years to compound this effect and produce the immense biological diversity we see today.

If there really were a saying as simple as “simplicity cannot create complexity” that immediately disproved Darwin’s theory of evolution, it would not have survived for 150 years. Most scientists barely have the resources to do their own research, let alone sustain a massive worldwide conspiracy to pretend that a bogus theory is valid. Why would they do that anyway? It’s a terrible way to promote atheism, for example, because many scientists are still religious and many religious people accept evolution. No, the theory has survived as a scientific theory because it has enormous explanatory power, requires very few assumptions and is backed by a mountain of evidence.

A “Survey”

Question from Leonard:
Don’t you find it to be most odd that there is something instead of nothing?
Wouldn’t it be more logical and simpler for there to be nothing?

Answer by SmartLX:
These are not survey questions, Leonard. This is an argument, nominally rephrased as a pair of questions. Any questionnaire containing the above is essentially a push poll, and certain ethical implications follow.

It might be logical to think that there should currently be nothing, but only if we knew of any point in the history of the universe when there was nothing, and we don’t. As far as we know there has always been something, and our current laws of conservation of matter and energy tend to back that up. We have no idea what preceded the Big Bang, if anything, and it is far beyond our current understanding to simply assume there was nothing at all.

Putting this aside, the usual follow-up to this idea by apologists is that the only way there can currently be something is if someone created it. Firstly, if there was someone there then there wasn’t nothing, and secondly, where did the someone come from? Yes, many theists object to that question because their chosen someone is supposedly eternal and uncaused, but then what actually stops the universe itself from being that way? Adding an uncaused, intelligent, inexplicable being such as a god never, ever simplifies the circumstances, and is quite unnecessary unless you impose arbitrary constraints on the universe – which the god immediately breaks to justify itself.

Living Without God

Question from Sophia:
I don’t know how many atheists have been Christians before, but I have questions as a Christian. The idea that a God is there for forgiveness, mercy, and justice is very comforting to me. There are certain things humans are unable to do. For instance, law enforcement may fail, but our free will brings it’s own consequences and has its own justice. Let me make it clear now that I don’t believe in hell. Humans make their own hell. We live in one already, full of war and hate, but our responsibilities include keeping the beautiful things alive.

Moving on… I have specific questions. Feel free to answer any or all of these questions.

1. When someone fails you, like a parent, spouse, or even yourself, what gives you comfort?

2. I’m sure most atheists think that “doing the right thing” is important, but why are some things right and others wrong if these precedents aren’t set by a higher authority, but by our own twisted judgment?

3. If you were once part of a different religion and then turned to atheism, why? Please go further than saying that “Christians still do bad things, what’s the point.” (I get that too often. If that’s your viewpoint, that’s fine, just explain further.)

Answer by SmartLX:
At least half of all atheists in the Western world were once members of a religion, and many still are in an official sense even though their faith is gone. I was raised as a Catholic myself.

Law enforcement may well fail to punish the guilty for their crimes. Human nature endows us with empathy and therefore usually a measure of guilt for our malicious actions, regardless of whether we’re caught, but it’s still a fact that some crimes and awful deeds go completely unpunished. It does not follow that there must be an afterlife and an ultimate judge in order to catch those who escape justice. Justice is an ideal we strive for, not a necessary physical component of the universe. If there’s no judgement after death, it’s up to us humans to give as many people their just deserts while they’re alive, because no one else will, and that’s that. A thing is not made true simply because it would be better if it were true, or bad or unthinkable if it were false. (Few things described as “unthinkable” really are unthinkable; most of them are just unpleasant.)

To your specific questions, then.

1. Sometimes the same person who’s “failed me” or caused me trouble or harm is the one who gives me comfort afterwards; that’s what it means to apologise, and to atone. Aside from that, I’m not a complete misanthrope, because the entire human race never lets me down all at once. There’s always some good in someone somewhere.

2. Our collective sense of right and wrong has changed over time. Slavery has been declared more and more unambiguously wrong, for instance, while different forms of personal freedom have gradually achieved the status of universal human rights. That alone is a very good indicator that right and wrong are not determined by some ultimate authority and then irreversibly fixed. That said, our judgement as a society has had a very long time to un-twist itself, as we constantly strive for ethical and legal standards with the greatest benefit. What we call “right” and “wrong” is relatively stable these days and helps us get along pretty well, though they’re still making changes to laws and so on. If we don’t assume our morality is absolute, we can always improve it.

3. I didn’t declare myself an atheist because I thought Christians were bad. I realised that I didn’t believe in any gods anymore, let alone the Christian one. It was that simple. (Incidentally, while bad Christians don’t indicate the lack of a god, neither do good Christians indicate the presence of one.)

Eternity, and not by Calvin Klein

Question from Brenton:
Is the universe eternal?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t know, but whether it is or not, neither option makes a god very likely.

Cosmologists now almost universally accept the Big Bang as a factual event which occurred about fourteen billion years ago. A far greater point of contention is whether the matter and energy in the universe have always existed, and were simply in some other state before they coalesced into the singularity which “exploded”, or if the Big Bang was truly the beginning of time and causality.

If the universe is eternal, there is no need for a creator god. Most theistic gods are regarded by their believers as eternal and thus in no need of their own creators; this is a real possibility for the universe itself.

If the universe is not eternal, and nothing material preceded it, then either it was created or produced by something or it emerged directly from nothing. Neither of these can be judged as more or less likely than the other based on our experience so far because, while we have no direct evidence of anything emerging from nothing (though quantum mechanics may suggest this possibility), we have no evidence at all of anything being created from nothing as creator gods are meant to have done.

That leaves the idea that something material (or with direct material influence) and outside the universe pre-dated it, and somehow resulted in its emergence. Again a god is possible here, but it could also be another previous universe, or the “quantum foam”, or any number of hypothetical entities. A god as an explanation is the least useful entity in this scenario because a full-blown intelligent god is itself an inexplicable cause, and it’s no more likely than any of the others. It’s also the only one which requires that we posit anything supernatural.

I realise that I’ve read quite a lot into your very simple question, but delving into these issues is the usual purpose of asking questions like this on an atheist website.

I Don’t Get No Respect, No Respect At All

Question from Patrick:
I’m fifteen years old, so obviously, living in their house, I still have to do as they say. Because of this, I still go to church with them and all that, although I do tell them that singing and dancing and all that are things that I’m uncomfortable with. In church, if I sit down, my mom waves for me to stand up, and if I don’t she grabs my arm and pulls me up. She’ll try to dance with me and stuff, and it just gets annoying. Now I do understand that she’s taking my best interest at heart and stuff, and I do understand that she doesn’t want me to go to hell and crap, but seriously? How can I show her my views and prove my views to her so maybe she’ll take me more seriously?

Last week, my mom, my sister and I all visited our cousins, and when I told my Aunt I was an atheist, my mom rolled her eyes and shook her head at my Aunt. I don’t speak out against my mom because she’s extremely religious, but I would like at least a little bit of respect! I told her I was uncomfortable with standing and singing and stuff because I’ve been pretending all my life and I don’t want to pretend anymore.

If I ask if I can stay home from church, she tells me that that is not something a good ‘Christian’ should do. If I hint anything on not believing in her god, she threatens to call the pastor to come and pray for me and talk to me and stuff. IT DRIVES ME NUTS!

So basically, how do I get her to see how serious I am about this?

Answer by SmartLX:
Remember that your mother is under a LOT of peer pressure to “raise you in the church”, especially if it’s the kind of church where they dance in the pews. Clearly she knows that you don’t believe, or at least that you’ve lost your enthusiasm for the whole thing, but this fact reflects badly on her from the perspective of her friends in the congregation, her pastor and possibly other members of your family. That’s not to say that she isn’t also genuinely concerned for the welfare of your soul, but even if she wasn’t she couldn’t easily let you out of the flock without what she would see as serious social consequences.

The usual assumption among churchgoers is that church attendance raises religiosity. That’s often true if you’re religious to begin with, but if you’ve already rejected the core claims of the religion then church can have the opposite effect. If you think your mother really thinks that dragging you to church will bring you back to the faith, talk to her after a service and ask her what specific parts of that service she thought would have done that. (Churches are all about spreading the Word, but many are at a loss when faced with the idea that the Word might not stick.) If you think she’s primarily “keeping up appearances”, point out that a sullen, reluctant teenager in the midst of all that forced joy stands out a lot more than an absent teenager.

I don’t know your pastor of course, but it might actually be worth escalating to him, whether you contact him directly or your mother brings him in. If he thinks he can roll out one of the Great Big Arguments and bamboozle you into believing after a few minutes, he’s in for a surprise. If he thinks your skepticism could spread to others in the church, he might even ask your mother not to bring you for a while. If he prays for you, it won’t do anything, so what do you care?

If the pastor can’t make any headway himself, he may tell your mother to redouble her own efforts to restore your faith, which at least will force her to confront the issue, respect that your position is sincere and open a dialogue with you. Once you’re at that stage, you’ll probably solve the problem just by being honest. As I’ve said to others on this site, the religious can become far less eager to engage with doubters if they think they themselves may be made to doubt or question. If you’ve read any of the “New Atheist” material from the last six years, you’ve got some idea how to turn religious apologetic back onto itself. If you need help with anything specific, comment and ask or search the site.

I know it’s a rotten spot to be in, but remember it won’t last because you won’t be fifteen forever. When you’re an adult, your mother will have far less power over your weekly routine. That said, if you can deal with this now you can enjoy your teenage years more without this adversarial aspect of your relationship with your mother. That’s a good reason for her to cut it out too, if you can get it across.

Religious Education and Religious Schools

Question from Dean:
Brief background:
I am a Christian. When I was raising my Children we went to Church occasionally and my kids went to Summer Camp (religious one) every year until their early teens. (I know, very brief but it should do)
My Son is now in his 30’s with two beautiful children and I am a proud Grampa!

My Daughter in law wants to enrol the kids in a religious based school as opposed to the public system…mainly due that she feels they offer a higher quality education, I agree. And NO…the school is not a wacko young earth type group…and yes…they teach evolution and proper science.
Anyway….my Son flat out refuses and has informed me that he thinks religion is nothing but bullshit.

I respect his choice but I have explained to him that his children should have some religious education like he did, after all, he was free to make his choice and I love him just as much regardless.

I have always felt that exposure to religion is part of a well rounded education.
Free will is a very important part of my Faith, but to have free will and the freedom to choose you should also have exposure to your choices.

Am I wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
I completely agree with you that exposure to religion is important, because it’s a huge part of everyday life even if you’re not religious, but religious education in a religious school usually goes beyond exposure and is seldom comprehensive.

The issue from your son’s perspective is likely that even a moderate Christian school will not only expose his children to Christianity but actively indoctrinate them into it to some extent at least, and it will not expose them to other religions (that is, other choices) as well. For both your sakes, it’s worth finding out what the RE curriculum is at this particular school, if only to confirm that you have something to fight about.

It’s always a dilemma for non-religious parents when the private, religious schools are the ones with the resources to offer the best education, which happens a lot. I was in exactly the same position myself, but as the child; my Catholic mother won out over my atheist father and I went to a liberal Catholic primary school. It didn’t stop me from questioning Christian doctrine at about age 11, and fading to agnosticism before I reached high school. Based on that alone I can assure you and your son that his kids’ ultimate positions are not foregone conclusions based on the choice of school, especially if it isn’t “wacko”.

I and a lot of other atheists see “comparative religion” as the ideal religious education: “This is what Christians believe, and how they worship. Now this is Hinduism…” and so on. It lays out the undisputed facts and the known history of the major world religions, without endorsing any particular view. That’s the kind of course that gives kids the most information, the most understanding and the widest choice. Sadly, only religious schools tend to be seriously interested in religious education at all, and they have a vested interest in not being impartial. (It’s certainly not the kind of class I had. I had to find it all out later.) This need not be a guaranteed deal-breaker for non-religious parents, but they do feel the need to take it into account.

My regards to you and your family. Good luck with sorting this out.

God’s Plan for the Multiverse?

Question from Devilush:
I am a devout Atheist. I enjoy documentaries, I recently watched one on PBS Nova and they were talking about a subject I know a little about, alternate universes. This made me think about the theist argument I always hear…god’s divine plan. To me it makes a strong argument that every choice is possible, therefore it is god’s plan because he does not make mistakes. So whatever we think is choice is in reality his plan because every choice is possible…personally I need measured evidence of [I think Devilush was possibly cut off there]

Answer by SmartLX:
If every choice is possible, and has happened in some universe or other, then every possible wrong choice has been made. Yes, there would be at least one universe where everything has always gone perfectly according to God’s supposed plan (maybe more, if nothing stops universes from being identical) but the larger multiverse would be littered with universes that had fallen by the wayside.

Crediting God for the one universe He got right would be like calling someone a good marksman for peppering the area around the target with stray bullets until one happened to hit the bullseye (close to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, but really just simple confirmation bias). It would also be completely undeserved, because in a multiverse where everything happens somewhere, it’s a mathematical certainty that any given plan will be matched perfectly and God doesn’t actually need to do anything. So much for all-powerful. If He created the whole system in the first place, good for Him, but that makes him a deistic god, not the kind of interventionist theistic god the theists you’ve heard this from actually worship.

Of course this is all assuming there’s a god at all, which brings it into the area of theology and out of the area of consideration which is useful to atheists, except when they’re conversing with believers.

DNA and Information

Question from Koalanu:
If the DNA structure is simply an illusion, is it possible for the monkey theorem to be true?

Could this also mean that the structure of reason, creativity, and emotion – could these all be illusions within our head?

Can we compare the complexity of DNA and Microsoft together?

Thank you guys soo much, I’ve been tryna look for an answer, but these questions have been bugging me a lot.

Answer by SmartLX:
The structure of DNA is not an illusion, unless you get all philosophical and suppose that the whole world could be an illusion. DNA is as real as anything else, and it’s really arranged in spiralling combinations of the four basic components: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine or A, C, G and T.

For DNA to allow for the monkey theorem, by which I reckon you mean the theory of evolution, it only has to do one thing: produce copies of itself, either directly or by the roundabout route of building a life form which then produces more DNA. It also has to do this imperfectly, so that the copies are not exactly the same as the original. (If it worked perfectly, there would be little or no change between generations.) Fortunately, this is exactly what DNA does, so the process of natural selection has all the raw material it needs.

Reasoning, creativity and emotion are products of the bio-electrical activity in our brains. We can be pretty sure of this because they can all be crippled if your brain is physically damaged. This doesn’t mean they’re illusions; it just means that we have abstract representations of the information we all process, because it’s easier to think that way.

DNA contains information of a very specific kind, namely strings of chemicals represented as, for example, ATCGGCGGTACTATCA. Microsoft products run on computers which store information as a series of bits, for example 0100100101010111. Both of these simple forms of information can, with a long enough series, represent just about anything. The difference is that the information in DNA has arisen naturally over a very long time, while most of the information at Microsoft was directly programmed in, or else generated by deliberately designed programs, very recently. (The rest is the result of data corruption.)

Hope that helps.