Cloudy With A 15% Chance of God

Question from Anonymous:
To whoever receives this message,

I was raised from birth as a Muslim, but as I began to study science, the stories that are told- such as Noah’s ark, Jesus, Moses etc.- seemed, well, improbable. I’m on the verge of becoming an atheist but there’s a couple of questions which I can’t seem to answer using scientific thought, I am after all only a second year university student. I feel as if I can’t just quit my religion without being at least 98% certain that there is most likely no God (I understand God can’t be entirely disproven, much in the same case the flying spaghetti monster can’t be either 😛 ). I’m hoping you’re able to.

The first is:

1. How could the universe begin if there was no creator that has been around since the beginning of time?
– Because if you can deny the creator, you can’t deny that at the very least energy would have had to have been around and had to have existed since the beginning of everything, and in this case:

Would energy be God? Can energy be God? Does this mean energy cares about what human beings do?

2. Life ceases to make sense, there is no drive, does this mean there is no point in life ultimately?
-I understand from an evolutionary perspective it is imperative we believe there is a reason to live. Humans are very reliant on being self centered and believing that everything must be about them. But I don’t like the idea of everything- this temporary struggle- to be about nothing.

3. Can you explain in terms of evolution how a new sexually producing species can be formed- in the sense that once the mutation occurs to cause a change in the species inside of a member of a population, how a male and a female version of the same different ‘evolved’ species (that has become reproductively isolated) is able to ‘come about’ at the same time in order to allow a continuation of this new, evolved species?
^ If I’ve explained that right, this is really dependent on chance and perhaps increases the likelihood of a God-like influence on the construction of a new species.

At the moment I’m at a 60-85% sure point that God doesn’t exist– it varies depending on the day, as I’m sure you would understand if you have been brought up on another faith, it is rather hard to get rid of that part of you which stubbornly doesn’t want to change no matter what the facts are.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I truly appreciate it. Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve never known anyone with such a specific threshold for the probability of the existence or non-existence of a god (other than those futilely seeking certainty). Perhaps we should all be as demanding of reality, and employ this brand of aggressive curiosity.

Anyway, let’s see if we can help you out.

1. It’s possible that the universe has always been around in some form, just as the creator god is assumed to have been. Indeed, it’s the simplest inference from the commonly understood law of conservation, which states that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. According to that, matter exists now, therefore it always has, and the Big Bang was just one event in an ongoing timeline. No creator is necessary in this case. As for the matter/energy which may always have existed, we have no reason to suppose that it’s anything like a god itself – that it answers prayers, or cares about humans at all.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the universe really did emerge from nothing, because quantum physics strongly infer that what we think of as “nothing” is highly unstable and generates new particles all the time. If you want to research this scenario, read A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss. (If you instead interpret this to mean that the “nothing” is really something, that changes little because it’s still an unintelligent object which renders a creator god unnecessary.)

2. You may not like the idea that we have no divinely bestowed purpose, but how does your personal taste for an idea (or anyone else’s) affect whether it’s true or false? The universe does not owe us comfort.

Evolution has endowed us with a strong survival instinct, yes, but it is not the only reason we have for existing. We give ourselves plenty of other reasons: science, art, the pursuit of happiness, the care of other creatures, each other and so on.

Any divine purpose which has ever been proposed appears to have actually been invented by humans anyway, so I think it’s better to be honest about it. Other theists maintain the vague belief that God has a purpose for them, but they’re not meant to know what it is. What’s the point of that, besides generating an unsupported sense of self-importance?

3. New species do not evolve as individuals, but as populations. The shared genome changes very, very slowly over hundreds or thousands of generations, and beneficial mutations spread across the group through new offspring. Both genders come along for the ride; gender is determined by a single chromosome, and the rest of the DNA is pretty much identical. Once the population has become different enough on average to qualify as a different species than it was before, there are plenty of new males and females around.

Happy new year to you too.

Entropy 101

Question from Jack (reproduced from a comment in the archive):
I’ve spent some time reading about evolution and creation. I’ve read several pages about entropy and I can’t seem to find one that makes sense. Can you explain entropy to a poor retard like myself?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a difficult concept, and most of us have to make do with an approximation, so here’s mine.

Imagine the process by which objects with some physical order (structure, symmetry, smoothness, etc.) break down over time (decay, melt, crumble, evaporate, rot) into substances which do not have that initial order (powder, gases, liquids, mush). They’re moving from an ordered state towards a more and more unordered state. Entropy, as a quantity, is the extent to which this has already happened at any given time. About the closest thing to a synonym for it is “loss of order”.

If entropy increases, order has been lost. If it decreases, order has emerged or been created. The point of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that entropy can’t decrease without increasing by at least as much in some connected object or area. In other words, it can’t decrease overall in a closed system.

The corrupted version of this law used by creationists is effectively that entropy can’t decrease at all without divine help. Alternatively they accept the law, but claim that the Earth is a closed system and any fresh order on it must be gods’ work. The response to the latter is to point out that the sun is part of any closed system which includes us. The thing runs on explosions, causing massive amounts of entropy. It sends some of the resulting energy our way as light, heat and radiation so that we might undo a tiny fraction of that entropy. That’s the connection.

A more general response is that if you think entropy is decreasing in a closed system, it’s likely that the system is not really closed.

Religion, Evolved

Question from Doug:
I was wondering. If evolution is responsible for everything that is, then what was (or is) the evolutionary advantage of belief in a deity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Belief in gods need not have had an evolutionary advantage in order to have resulted from our evolution. It could instead be a by-product of other psychological traits which do have direct advantages.

Two such traits are obvious candidates:
– Human beings see deliberate action (“agency”) everywhere, even sometimes when there is none. It’s a “better safe than sorry” reflex that encouraged our ancestors to avoid tall grass moving oddly rather than take the chance that a carnivorous beast was moving through it. By the same token, people see what Christians call “the hand of God” in all sorts of occurrences, most of which have perfectly good natural explanations (the rest are merely unexplained). Imagining powerful beings controlling all such things was a short leap to make.
– Children can learn from their parents and other guardians, long before they develop the capacity for critical thinking. The benefits of this are obvious; if kids didn’t accept instructions before they were seven or so they’d have a tough time surviving even that long (either in the ancient world of predators and bandits, or in the modern world of hot stoves and busy roads). When supernatural doctrine is taught to children, most of them accept it without question and retain the beliefs all their lives. Thus a religion can sustain itself even if it never recruits a single non-believing adult.

That’s my opinion of the evolutionary reasons for widespread religion. I don’t think it has a significant direct evolutionary benefit, especially since archaeological evidence suggests that we had already evolved to Homo sapiens before the first signs of religion emerged. As long as religion hasn’t literally endangered the human species (and as much death and destruction as it’s caused, it hasn’t been quite that catastrophic so far) its existence wouldn’t have been seriously threatened by natural selection alone.

Natural Selection

“So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist.”

Question from CLH:
Asking you a question about specifically about evolution might seem a bit off-topic in regard to atheism.
But as you probably know the majority of the scientific community (the majority of which are atheists) regard evolution as scientific fact.
And we’re talking the entire theory, not some watered down “micro-evolution” version.

I’ve recently read some books to increase my knowledge and understanding on the theory of evolution.
It is now abundantly clear to me that all living things on this earth have evolved (as opposed to having been “designed” in their present form).

Until you understand that these changes have occurred slowly over billions of years it is kind of hard to grasp the concept of evolution. Even then it is mind-boggling to thing that we could get from a single-celled organism to where we are today.

But the facts are indisputable in that regard. But while evolution doesn’t fit well with the story of creation as told in the bible, it doesn’t
completely rule out intelligent or conscious design at point in the evolutionary process.

In my reading about evolution the authors do a great job of explaining how evolution consists of the natural selection of random mutations.
It seems confusing to people at first (which is it…”random” or “selection”?), but I get now the basic concept. But the part that I don’t understand
is this. They make it clear that neither random mutations or natural selection is a “conscious” process.
This suggests to me that there is no needs assessment or analysis taking place. But without such a needs assessment or analysis taking place, how
are we to believe that the natural selection process could have any direction or insight in determining which random mutations are actually beneficial and should therefore be selected?

Consider the evolution case study “How Beach Life Favors Blond Mice”

The basis of the study is that beach life survival favors mice with blonde as opposed to dark colored hair. The understanding is that flying predators
can more easily see and located the contrast of dark colored mice against the white sand background as opposed to blond colored mice. Makes perfect sense
and I believe that has actually been proven in some scientific experiments. But here is what I don’t get. Without a conscious assessment of someone or something
to make the observation that being blonde is more beneficial how does the natural selection go about making the right selection that we’re giving it credit for?
It would be one thing if you had a group of mice that were gathered behind a rock and saw a couple of their buddies (one blond and one dark) run
out onto the sandy beach and make the observation that time and time again the predator preys on the dark colored mouse. It that observation (conscious knowledge) were somehow
transferred and converted to their DNA for future generations to make use of in the natural selection process then that might make sense.
But once again we’re told that natural selection is in no way a conscious process. So that being the case, one has to wonder what basis natural selection
has for doing the needs assessment and making the right selection? That seems to leave open the possibility that intelligent design might be interceding at some point. Not necessarily a theist “God” mind you, but some form of intelligent (conscious) design. Or perhaps the scientists are just wrong about natural selection not being a conscious process?

On a side note, I’m wondering if there is a more common sense explanation for the blond mice case study such as the following:
As more dark mouse die off there are less and less of their dark mouse DNA to contribute to the future generation gene pool resulting in the future breading and reproduction cycle of more and more blond and less and less dark colored mice.

Answer by Andrea:
I see that your critical thinking skills are well-honed, since you basically came up with the answer as to why evolution is not a conscious process in your last paragraph.
My religiously conservative dad once took a tour through Grand Canyon and when the guide told him that the squirrels had changed through natural selection my dad laughed, “Isn’t that silly, squirrels choosing each other?” I tried to stifle my own laugh while I explained they don’t consciously choose each other, it’s that the squirrels best adapted to their environment (in your example mice being blond and less visible to predators) live longer and therefore produce more offspring. Their offspring that carry those adaptive genes will also live longer, which allows them to also carry forth those genes to a greater extent than those not carrying the beneficial genes until they become commonplace in the population. The version of the gene with less adaptive properties then often becomes recessive or eventually it loses its function due to disuse.
With respect to mutations, a lot of religionists will say that mutations are bad, and it’s ridiculous to think they could generate a whole new species. But what they don’t understand, or perhaps want to know, is that our genes mutate all the time throughout our lives for many different reasons, and most of those mutations are neither harmful nor beneficial. When harmful mutations arise, they are typically not spread widely since their carriers are not as fit for the environment and typically don’t live as long or as healthily.
Darwin termed this “natural” selection, which is selection guided nonconsciously by environmental cues. This is compared to the selection he saw by pigeon and dog owners, who guided the selection “unnaturally” by selectively breeding their animals to produce the desired genetic mix.
So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist. In fact, it takes a far greater “leap of faith” to believe that an intelligent designer zapped everything into existence — for example, who zapped the intelligent designer into existence? And if that creator has always been around, why not just believe the universe has always been around in different form, for which there is much more evidence? It’s much more logical to believe that since only four out of 118 or so elements needed to produce life — oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon (albeit under the right conditions). There is fossil, genetic, chemical and empirical evidence for evolution, yet there is absolutely none for the intelligent design, also known as the creationist, point of view.
Creationists will admit there may be evidence for evolution but assert that this is only on the microevolutionary scale, such as with regard to bacteria and viruses. Although they deny that macroevolution occurs, we have already seen it with other quickly-producing organisms such as birds, fish and small rodents to the extent that they can no longer interbreed — one step at which they are considered a new species. There is also plenty of scientific evidence in the form of fossils, and there are transition species for almost all of the major transitions, including from water to land (see Tiktaalik, discovered in 2006).

Good job analyzing.

How is Evolution Incompatible with Christianity?

“If God created evolution by natural selection as many liberal Christians believe, He set up a mechanism which rendered Him completely superfluous from that point onward.”

Question from Richard:
I have been debating back and forth with my sister who is a devout Christian. I know that it is almost pointless to argue with a theist being that they have mysticism of religion to fall back on once things are not going well for them. One thing my sister seems to do is acknowledge the validity of evolution, but states that god created evolution and just let it run its course. It is really hard to comeback with something to say. This is one of those things that makes perfect sense in my head but it is hard to communicate with her why this dual belief is incorrect. Can you please help.

Answer:
If God created evolution by natural selection as many liberal Christians believe, He set up a mechanism which rendered Him completely superfluous from that point onward. If God guided natural selection along the way, then it wasn’t natural selection.

The Darwinian/neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (the main difference between the two is genetics, which Darwin didn’t know about) holds that as soon as there was a self-replicating organism which tended to make imperfect copies, the variations created by random mutation are all the raw material that was required for natural selection to encourage the progress and diversification which produced all current life. No designer was required, even if there was one available.

Natural selection isn’t really an algorithm you can design or impose. It’s an emergent phenomenon, which means it simply tends to happen when different life forms are competing for resources. It’s like how when a container of stones and sand of different sizes is agitated, the smaller particles sift lower in the pile. There’s no universal rule in place which guides each stone to its proper place in the pile; everything just falls into the available spaces, and a certain amount of order emerges. Likewise, if every life form survives or dies by being better or worse at something than its competitors, which is often self-evident, then each generation will have “fitter” creatures than the one before it. It’s not something which has to be dictated beforehand in order to happen.

As I said, many liberal Christians believe what your sister believes, including prominent evolutionary biologists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins. The issue is that when they’re called upon to justify this, they invariably do it by arguing for the inadequacy of scientific explanations. They pick an amazing physical feature such as the human brain and say that either natural selection needed a guiding hand to achieve it or, in Collins’ view, that natural selection is rigged to inevitably achieve it. That’s artificial selection, not natural selection, and it has nothing to do with Darwinian evolution. It’s very close to the position of Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe, who in his last book argued that God is responsible for beneficial mutations.

Alternatively they go back to before the beginning of evolution proper and say that the building blocks of life could not have assembled in the first place without help. This is a denial of the entire study of abiogenesis, which has made a great deal of progress in recent years despite not actually replicating the phenomenon completely. (You’d hear about it if it did, trust me.) This claim by itself isn’t even saying that God made evolution; it’s saying that God made life and then evolution simply happened. It’s still a case of biologists attacking biology, which is sad to see.

Your sister’s position is superficially tenable; it’s possible that both God exists and evolution happened, and even that one had something to do with the other. However, as I’ve argued above, this idea has implications which weaken both the idea of evolution and the idea of God. It’s the price one has to pay to accommodate both.

SmartLX

Interview with the Preacher

“…you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.”

Question from Bailey:
I’m an atheist and a freelance writer. My dad’s preacher has agreed to answer some questions I have about the Bible and his views on things of the religious matter. Trouble is, now that I have the opportunity to ask whatever I want (and get an entirely silly response I’m sure), I am a bit stumped. I have in mind:

1.) If the Bible is as black and white as they say, why ignore the laws in the Bible such as “don’t eat shellfish” and the like, and follow rules like “homosexuality is a sin?”…I will be referring to the laws in Leviticus.

2.) Do you believe in creationism or evolution and why?

3.) Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? (I will be using specific examples, but would like as many ideas as possible).

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Help?

Answer:
That lot’s a good start, but you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.

I’ve only just answered a question about the nasty Leviticus laws, so check that out first.

Whether your father’s preacher is a creationist depends rather a lot on his denomination. Evangelicals are generally creationists to some extent (with some high-profile exceptions such as Francis Collins), whereas Catholics usually toe the Vatican’s line of theistic evolutionism which is basically, “God caused evolution.” Either way, what he believes is almost certainly what his church officially believes, and you’d do best to look that up.

You may be at a disadvantage if he does turn out to be a creationist. There are a great many creationist arguments which, unsound as they are, take 5-10 seconds each to say and require a bit of research to rebut properly. About the best thing I can do for you is supply a slightly old but still exhaustive list.

If you’re looking for contradictions, you can’t go past the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible. It’s got a huge collection of them. Best of all, it’s been around long enough for other sites to write replies, and in a grand example of sportsmanship the SAB links to them directly. If you have a selection of apparent contradictions you’re going to bring up, you can get a very good idea of how this preacher will respond if he decides to defend them.

Besides your suggested questions I have one more, which I always try to ask believers: quite simply, “Why do you believe?” Once you know that, it’s only natural to work through the follow-up question with them: basically, “Is that a good reason?” It’s why I’m an atheist, really. I examined my own reasons for believing in the Christian God, and they just weren’t good enough. Self-examination, if you can manage to provoke it in others, is a powerful tool.

Best of luck with the interview, whatever your goal is. (You didn’t really make that clear. I hope you actually have one.) Let us know how it goes.

SmartLX

Ask from the Past: Evolution vs Creation Conundrum

On the “croco-duck”: “Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. In Ask from the Past I’ll be working through them.)

Question from Katoi5:
I am in the difficult process of completely renouncing my faith, I’m pretty much an Atheist, but I think I am more of an agnostic. My problem is with Creationists and how they are insisting that there are no transitional form fossils in the fossil record and Evolutionists insisting that there are several.

Since I can’t physically see these fossils for myself I can’t prove to myself once and for all that they are in fact real. Who can I believe? For any Atheist who has seen or knows for a fact these transitional forms exist, please let me know and perhaps tell me where I can find out more about them. If in fact there are transitional forms, then are creationists lying or do they really not know?

Thank-you

Answer:
As Richard Dawkins explains in his new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, there’d be plenty of evidence even if not a single fossil had been unearthed, let alone obvious transitional forms. As it happens, there are lots of them.

All fossils are transitional in a sense because evolution is an ongoing process. The three most famous fossilised creatures who make great examples are Ambulocetus (literally “walking whale”, a huge sea mammal who hadn’t lost his legs yet), Tiktaalik (partway between a fish and an amphibian reptile) and “Lucy” the Australopithecus afarensis (a primate with an ape-sized brain and an upright gait). In each of these skeletons, both the type of animal it evolved from and the type it would eventually evolve into is startlingly obvious.

It can be difficult to see the fossils in person, for instance because “Lucy” is in Africa where she was found. If you have the resources and the mobility, however, they really do exist and you can go chasing them if you really need to. Otherwise, Google Images can quickly round up photos and drawings of them from all over.

Individual creationists may deny the existence of transitional fossils for any of several reasons:
– They haven’t heard of the famous ones.
– They have heard of the famous ones, but they’re trying to persuade those who haven’t. (Sophistry alert.)
– They maintain a definition of “transitional fossil” which does not match the reality. (Take Ray Comfort’s famous “croco-duck”: half-crocodile, half-duck. Birds evolved from reptiles, all right, but you’re never going to find a fossil that shows a transition between two modern species. There isn’t a straight line of descent between distant cousins.)

While as I said the complete absence of fossils would not harm Darwin’s theory, the well-known transitional forms we do have make the process of evolution just that little bit more visible and comprehensible. That’s anathema to creationists, hence the campaigns of denial.

SmartLX

Testing for Design

IDEA has one answer. I have other ideas.

Question by the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center (the IDEA Center):
Does intelligent design make predictions? Is it testable?

Answer according to the IDEA Center:
Yes.

“Intelligent design theory predicts:
1) that we will find specified complexity in biology. One special easily detectable form of specified complexity is irreducible complexity. We can test design by trying to reverse engineer biological structures to determine if there is an “irreducible core.” Intelligent design also makes other predictions, such as
2) rapid appearance of complexity in the fossil record,
3) re-usage of similar parts in different organisms, and
4) function for biological structures.
Each of these predictions may be tested–and have been confirmed through testing!”

ATA Answer:
Yes and no, but the no is bigger.

The IDEA Center is a student-targeted initiative co-founded by Casey Luskin, now of the Discovery Institute. It encourages high school and tertiary students to set up their own IDEA clubs and talk about intelligent design. I use the present tense because it’s never officially folded, but there has been no visible activity by IDEA since a screening of The Privileged Planet in 2007.

I’m not simply flogging a dead horse (with regard to IDEA and intelligent design itself) because the question applies to the now more openly advocated hypothesis of divine design. It concerns a major aspect of claims by any creationist group that their version qualifies as science: is it falsifiable? What does it tell us that we don’t already know? What would disprove it?

I’ll work through the points in IDEA’s answer.

1) Two kinds of “specified complexity” crop up in creationist arguments: irreducible complexity, and “complex specified information” such as that found in DNA.

The discovery of irreducible complexity in a lifeform might go a long way toward proving design, though this hasn’t happened so far. Every purported example of irreducible complexity has been hypothetically reduced, in other words a possible evolutionary pathway to its current state has been found. On the other hand, the absence of real examples doesn’t mean nothing is designed. Irreducible complexity is only useful to this issue at all if it’s actually found.

The term “complex specified information” subtly begs the question, implying that someone specified it. While there’s certainly complex information in DNA, this is predicted and indeed required by evolutionary theory as well. The instructions for building body parts, the essential products of mutation and natural selection, have to be stored somewhere.

There’s a larger example of begging the question here. Of course the design hypothesis will predict the very thing it was created to explain: the complexity of life, including its means of reproduction and information storage. The important predictions we get from science are those with new, as yet unknown information – those we have to go out and test, not just refer to the same information that spawned the hypothesis.

For instance, we have one less chromosome pair than our closest ape relatives. Losing a pair outright is catastrophic, so the only way our species could have arisen from apes with one less chromosome pair is if two pairs fused. Therefore the end-markers for chromosomes should appear in the middle of just one of our pairs. On investigation, they showed up in pair #2. If they hadn’t, or had appeared in more than one pair, evolutionary theory as it exists now would have been falsified.

2) Again, the rapid appearance of complexity is a non-unique and retrospective prediction by the design hypothesis. Evolutionary theory allows for it as well, for a given value of “rapid”.

The most famous example is the “Cambrian explosion”, which took not less than two million of the fifteen million years now known as the Cambrian period. That’s as long as homo habilis took to evolve through homo erectus into us, homo sapiens. Given that it’s also roughly the point where the animal kingdom itself began, one would expect tremendous diversification.

A prediction certain design proponents might make which is not shared by evolutionary theory is not the rapid appearance but the literally instantaneous appearance of complexity. Like irreducible complexity, this would be earthshaking if found, but until then its apparent absence tells us nothing.

3) Similar features in creatures which are not at all closely related is another thing evolutionary theory also predicts in unremarkable hindsight, via convergent evolution. For example, across the animal kingdom we see eyes at all stages of development because eyes are undeniably useful. Any creature which begins to develop sight has an immediate advantage over the blind.

4) “Function for biological structures” mostly refers to DNA, and the idea that it’s all useful. The existence of “junk DNA”, that which has no effect on the creature which carries it, does not obviously indicate a design purpose, so the prediction of design is that practical effects will eventually be traced to most or all of it.

Given that we don’t know the purpose of a lot of DNA, new purposes will surely be found for some of it, but what’s the failure standard here? What percentage of DNA, if confirmed to be absolutely useless, would disprove design? There’s no sensible answer. Design isn’t falsifiable this way either.

In the broad view, we have 1. a bunch of different ways evolution could at any moment be debunked or disproved (and, notably, hasn’t been) and 2. no good way divine design could ever have potentially been disproved. It makes obvious predictions, all right, but it can’t truly be tested. Hopefully I’ve managed to demonstrate the difference a little more for you.

SmartLX

Scientific Evolution: the art show

10% of the proceeds from the show will go towards stem cell research, which is a great thing, but they’re pretty sure it’s hurt their publicity campaign.

We got a request to publicise a month-long exhibition in California named, and themed, Scientific Evolution.

10% of the proceeds from the show will go towards stem cell research, which is a great thing, but they’re pretty sure it’s hurt their publicity campaign.

I’ve done as they asked for two reasons. One, any publicity for evolution itself is good when the principal weapon against its acceptance is ignorance. Two, it’s very probable that the negative publicity for this art stems directly from conservative religious groups, and (imagine Marvin the Martian’s voice) this makes me very angry.

If you’re in California, see whether the exhibition would interest you. If not, have a look round for any protestation against it. I wonder if we can identify particular antagonists?

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #4: Design

“…theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind.”

Question:
Here’s a sample of the many different ways in which the same basic question is posed: How did all the beauty around us come to be? How did intelligent people come from monkeys, or oranges, or sludge, or nothing at all? How did life begin if the chances of the necessary proteins assembling was one in ten to the power of hundreds? (The next one’s taken from an actual wall poster:) How can anyone witness a sunset and not believe in God? Why is there any order to the universe? Why are the fundamental constants of the universe tuned so that matter, and humans, can exist at all? How is it that we live, and live in such a wonderful world, if it all came about by chance?

Answer:
From the development of the eye to the beauty of a waterfall to the exact value of the gravitational constant, theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind. This is the Argument from Design.

Even if it were correct, it’s a terribly egotistical way of looking at the world. And even if it were proven to be correct, no religion would have any basis upon which to claim that the designer or creator was its particular god or gods.

The basic answer to the argument from design is that there is no substantive evidence for it and therefore 1. to assume design in the presence of alternative theories supported by substantive evidence is putting one’s head in the sand and 2. to assume design even in the complete absence of alternative theories is an argument from ignorance.

Beginning with evolution and the development of intelligent humans, there is a huge amount of geological, genetic and observed evidence to support the currently held view of the “tree of life”. Evolution of subspecies is observed all the time, and contrary to a common objection whole new species have been seen to emerge, and recently. (This article on speciation has some examples.)

Contrary to another creationist talking point, there are tons of known transitional fossils. Contrary to Kirk Cameron, these don’t look like half of one animal joined to half of another (like his famous Croco-duck). They’re more like what you get if you morph a whole picture of one into a picture of the other, but stop halfway.

To dismiss evolution as a useless series of random changes is an argument from personal incredulity, which is a type of argument from ignorance. It’s also wrong. The mutations are random, but only the beneficial mutations tend to be passed on by sheer survival and procreation skills. Evolution doesn’t just try random things and get it right every time, it tries everything and goes with what works. It’s like trying to hit a dartboard by spraying the whole wall with a machine gun. You’ll miss a lot, but you’ll hit it too.

Intelligence came about because at every stage in the development of primates, the ones who are just that little bit smarter than everyone else will always have the advantage. Over millions of years, it all adds up. Along with this comes morality (since good deeds are often rewarded), an appreciation of beauty (since it helps if what’s pleasing to the eye is usually not diseased, poisonous or dirty) and emotions (to motivate us to do what’s helpful to us and others).

Going back to the origin of life, abiogenesis as it was called could have occurred by a number of different chemical processes. So far scientists have used electricity (lightning) and a replica of the ancient atmosphere to create amino acids, which are pretty close. With a whole world full of chemicals being blown and washed into each other and billions of years to work, there was ample time and material for the components of the first replicating organism to slowly accumulate. The huge odds against this often given by folks like Hoyle generally assume firstly that they all had to come together at once, and secondly that only one version of it could possibly work. Once one little bit of DNA was off and running, evolution and exponential growth took over.

Before we tackle the whole universe at once, let’s consider Earth. Someone might claim that God put Earth exactly where it needed to be relative to the Sun so that liquid water and therefore life could form. We now know, however, that there are a lot more planets out there, and probably huge numbers of undiscovered ones. It’s not that Earth was placed where liquid water could form. Rather, liquid water only forms on planets of the right temperature and Earth happened to fit the bill. Lots more planets might. This is called the anthropic principle: places aren’t made for humans, humans just have a chance of turning up in hospitable places. Even on Earth there are many places we can’t survive, like inside volcanoes and kilometres under the sea. So, we didn’t emerge from there. Big surprise.

The largest design claim has to do with the fundamental constants of the universe. Six major ones are usually mentioned: those pertaining to gravity, electromagnetism, spatial dimensions and other less famous concepts. As is repeated endlessly, the slightest difference in any of them might result in matter being unable to form or stay together. This is the “fine-tuned universe” argument.

The problem is that even if this is true, there could still be other values of the constants which support matter. Perhaps instead of changing one or two slightly, you need to shift four of them by a huge amount. Considering that some of the constants could even be negative, you’ve got an infinite six-dimensional sample space in which to test hypothetical universes. We may never know whether our values are the only valid ones. Or, we may stumble upon another valid combination and that’ll be the end of this argument.

Besides, the anthropic principle applies again if you consider the theory of a multiverse. If there are multiple (perhaps infinite) universes each with its own set of constants, of course we’re going to turn up in the universe with a friendly combination. Other life forms may be thriving in universes where we wouldn’t last for a second, and understanding how would require us to re-learn physics from scratch.

Contesting the argument from design is hard work, because to be most effective you need to know the going theories for whatever phenomenon is in question. I’ve tackled the most common ones, but be prepared for just about anything useful or pretty to be presented as direct evidence for gods. Then you need only find out where it really came from.

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