The Anthropic Principle

“…the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.”

Question from Alanis:

In Richard Dawkins’ widely acclaimed book “The God Delusion” he dedicates a few pages to the Anthropic Principle, emphasizing that it is an alternative to the argument for fine tuning/design, rather than a factor of it. Please elaborate on what Richard could possibly mean by that. From my (admittedly weak) understanding of the anthropic principle, all it states is that given the fact that we are here to observe it, it should not be surprising that life originated in the universe. I do not see how that debunks or supports intelligent design in any way.

Answer:
Dawkins’ point relates to probability. The fine-tuning argument as it relates to Earth, for example, is that it’s so staggeringly unlikely that Earth would be just the right size, distance from the sun, elemental composition, etc. that it must have been created specifically so that life could exist here. The anthropic principle is that we would be considering the same thing from whichever planet we had emerged on.

The sheer number of planets in the universe (probably within one order of magnitude of the number of stars, about ten thousand billion billion) goes a long way towards balancing out the low probability that any given planet will produce life, giving the universe as a whole a more reasonable chance of naturally producing life somewhere. Even so, the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.

Of course there’s also the fine-tuning argument which relates to the whole universe, not just the planet. The anthropic principle applies in that case if you consider the possibility of a multiverse. That hasn’t been confirmed or debunked, but there are other replies to that sort of fine-tuning argument which don’t rely on the anthropic principle at all so it’s not a critical point.

Games of chance make a good analogy. Whoever wins the lottery feels special, or even blessed, but they forget that millions of people have also played and the chances that someone won’t win the jackpot decrease rapidly as successive weeks are considered. The chances for an individual are millions to one, but someone’s going to get rich eventually.

– SmartLX

The Atheist’s Riddle

“Perry Marshall presents himself as an invincible defender of his supposed proof of an Intelligent Designer, standing atop a mountain of vanquished counter-arguments from hordes of atheists.”

Argument taken directly from Cosmic Fingerprints:
1) DNA is not merely a molecule with a pattern; it is a code, a language, and an information storage mechanism.
2) All codes are created by a conscious mind; there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.
3) Therefore DNA was designed by a mind.

Answer:
Perry Marshall presents himself as an invincible defender of his supposed proof of an Intelligent Designer, standing atop a mountain of vanquished counter-arguments from hordes of atheists.

The plain logical error in the argument is in the second premise, and it’s the one logical fallacy I come across more than any other: an argument from ignorance. “There is no natural process known to science that creates coded information.” That’s not the same as saying there really is no such natural process (which would be a simple unsupported statement rather than a fallacy), but it expects us to assume as much. Is Mr Marshall, or any human alive, familiar with “all codes” in the universe? What qualifies anyone to make such a sweeping statement? This attempted proof by elimination of the origin of DNA must leave room for unknown alternatives to maintain any honesty, and is therefore not a real proof.

I realise that the fact of the logical error is not such a brilliant counter-argument when you’re actually trying to convince people. There are plenty more objections, and Marshall has posted and replied to many on his site. He hasn’t always done so convincingly, though you can judge that for yourself. I’ll just take one approach as an exercise.

As support for the argument that all codes are designed by a mind, Marshall argues that random processes do not produce information. (I’ve been through this at length, years ago.) His primary demonstration is his own text-based random mutation generator which takes a sentence and, through single-letter changes, turns it to nonsense.

Marshall admits that the mutation utility does not simulate natural selection, the non-random element of evolution. Furthermore, he’s not interested in adding that functionality to test his own argument. (He says instead that the reader is free to do it for him. Several people have, beginning thirty years ago with Richard Dawkins’ “Methinks it is like a weasel” program and continuing with browser-friendly programs like Mutate.)

He argues that natural selection would only create sensible sentences if words only mutated into other meaningful words, but that’s not applying natural selection at the letter level. An ideal extension of his program would present several choices of mutation at each step, and allow those letter mutations which destroy the legibility of a word to be manually or automatically ruled out. (The real world equivalent is a serious birth defect, which would keep a creature from breeding or even living long enough to breed.) In Marshall’s program, detrimental mutations are allowed to compound until all sense is lost. Of course we won’t likely get anything useful out of it.

Forgetting even the mechanism of natural selection, I submit a basic argument for the possibility of chance creating information which I’ve used before: think of a large grid of squares which can be either black or white, but all start as white. If you randomly pick the colour of every square at once, there is a chance, however small, that the newly black squares will form a simple but clear picture of a rectangle, or the letter G, or Elvis. Without adding any extra material, chance can increase the amount of information the grid provides. The prebiotic chemicals only had to manage a feat like this once, given potentially unlimited opportunities, to come up with DNA or its precursors.

SmartLX

Naturalistic Pantheism

“The only practical difference between a naturalistic pantheist and an atheist, therefore, is that an atheist doesn’t bother to call the universe a god. It’s just a universe.”

Question from Jim:
I wanted to ask you if atheists in general, consider a person who is naturalistic pantheist to be an atheistic person.

Answer:
Generally, I think we do. I certainly do.

A pantheist thinks that God is everything, that is, the whole universe. The naturalist view is that the laws of nature, whatever they may actually be, cannot be broken. A naturalistic pantheist, therefore, thinks that God is beholden to His inherent natural laws and cannot go against them to serve His own purposes. In other words, not only can’t He perform miracles, He can’t make anything happen which wouldn’t happen anyway.

The only practical difference between a naturalistic pantheist and an atheist, therefore, is that an atheist doesn’t bother to call the universe a god. It’s just a universe.

SmartLX

Sin

“The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.”

Question from Louis:
Does an atheist believe in the concept of sin? Do they believe they can be punished for sin?

Answer:
Not usually.

The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.

The competing idea that our bad deeds follow us around ethereally in life and cause misfortune requires the existence of either an interventionist god or an unknown and purposeful energy, which ancient Indian religions named karma, and atheists generally don’t believe in that either.

This doesn’t mean that atheists think bad deeds go entirely unpunished. That’s what the law is for, to begin with. Besides judicial punishment for illegal deeds, other selfish and destructive acts turn other people against us, and provoke revenge and grudges. They also make us feel guilty and want to atone.

That’s why we don’t need a god to enforce our morals. We have other people, and we have ourselves.

SmartLX

Eternal inflation? No. Eternal universe? Maybe, nevertheless. And what’s it to ya?

“These three scientists in particular, by virtue of their joint paper, are name-checked more often than any others by apologists not just arguing for an absolute beginning to the universe but claiming that this has been established beyond doubt.”

Question:
Scientists Arvin Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, in their 2003 paper “Inflationary Spacetimes Are Incomplete in Past Directions”, ruled out past-eternal inflationary models of the universe. Does this prove that
1. the universe had an absolute beginning,
2. that it must have had a cause and
3. that the cause was God?

Answer:
No, no and no.

These three scientists in particular, by virtue of their joint paper, are name-checked more often than any others by apologists not just arguing for an absolute beginning to the universe but claiming that this has been established beyond doubt. Apologists up to and including William Lane Craig do this to support the cosmological argument for God, which requires such a beginning to be indisputable.

So what does the paper actually say? Feel free to read it via the link above (it’s dense but short), but the thrust is in the title: spacetime can’t have been inflating infinitely into the past.

That seems obvious since you’d think you’d eventually reach a singularity if you worked backwards, but models have been proposed wherein the farther back you go the slower the expansion is. Some reasoned that perhaps the universe has spent eternity inflating extremely slowly from a size barely larger than a singularity, speeding up as it went along.

Borde, Guth and Vilenkin examined this idea and found, essentially, that it wouldn’t work in the real world. In doing so they pretty much dismissed every model of an expanding universe (or multiverse) that doesn’t involve a proper singularity and Big Bang. Therefore, according to apologists, the universe definitely had an absolute beginning, which must have had a cause, and that cause was God.

That’s going way too far because, for a start, the paper doesn’t take a position on whether the now-confirmed Big Bang was an absolute beginning. There are many more universe/multiverse models wherein the Big Bang was merely an event in an ongoing sequence – where the matter in the singularity came from somewhere, not nowhere. Borde et al only intended to rule out a family of models that clearly don’t work.

Get that? Borde, Guth and Vilenkin did NOT rule out an eternal universe, even if the result of their paper is correct. They merely ruled out one kind of eternal universe, the kind where the Big Bang never happened. The fact that there was a Big Bang does not mean there was nothing before the Big Bang.

The Big Bang as absolute zero, or an absolute beginning in general, is a poor platform for apologetics in any case. The idea that whatever begins to exist has a cause is not based on anything which physically began to exist in the same way the universe supposedly did, completely ex nihilo (literally “from nothing”). We’ve never seen anything like that happen, so:
1. it’s curious that so many people assume the universe came about in this way,
2. there’s no basis for assigning a cause if it did and
3. even if it had a cause, it’s a huge leap to declare it any kind of god, let alone someone’s specific personal deity.

SmartLX

Why do you care?

“Simply thinking that what people believe is wrong isn’t the only reason to try to convince them otherwise.”

Question from Katie:
I am a very strong Christian. I have studied my religion in depth and I have no doubt that it is true. My sister recently married an Atheist. He is intent on destroying my family’s faith. We have had several theological arguments and always run into the same wall, his logic versus our faith. I recognize that faith and belief in God is not logical. But that does not diminish my faith.

I have told my brother in law that I will never take away his right to not believe in God and that I will never try to convert him. He can not show me the same courtesy. He is determined to “stop the Christian movement”. What I want to know is why does he care so much? If I believe something he doesn’t why is he so adamant to change my feelings? I don’t believe in the tooth fairy but I don’t visit local elementary schools to tell children the truth about the fairy conspiracy.

I have never tried to convince him that he is wrong because I believe everyone has the right to believe in what their conscience dictates. He is constantly trying to change my thoughts. I am not an Atheist hater and I mean no disrespect by my question. I am looking for an answer and I hope you can shed light on this dilemma.

Answer:
Simply thinking that what people believe is wrong isn’t the only reason to try to convince them otherwise.

Imagine if the tooth fairy wasn’t just a game of pretend that children grew out of soon after the “age of reason”. Imagine if a huge number of people believed in the fairy their whole lives. (Practically speaking, since parents were still the ones taking the teeth from under the pillow, they’d have to believe that the tooth fairy received the teeth after parents ritually disposed of them.)

Imagine therefore that:
– A child losing a tooth was a huge event, and the child was severely punished if he or she lost (or, Fairy forbid, swallowed) any loose teeth.
– Once they were adults, people nursed a feeling of inferiority from having no more teeth to give, and some even knocked out their adult teeth as offerings.
– Zealous Toothians travelled to Third World countries with the primary goal not of helping the people with their existing problems but of collecting as many of their children’s teeth as possible, and some Toothian missionaries even refused aid to those who didn’t offer teeth.
– Those very rare occasions when a person grows a third set of teeth in adulthood were treated as miracles, and unscrupulous people conned Toothians out of their life savings and adult teeth by claiming to have the power to give them that third set.
– Toothian politicians legislated in favour of Toothian interests whenever possible, at the expense of everyone else’s rights.

If you personally didn’t believe in the tooth fairy but all of this were happening around you, you would see that these people weren’t just wrong in their beliefs, but were also spending huge amounts of time, energy and money on an essentially pointless enterprise at the expense of their own finances, health and wellbeing. Furthermore, you’d know that some of the more extreme Toothians were doing great harm to others and to their own, physically and psychologically, some unknowingly and some deliberately, as a direct result of being Toothians.

After realising all this, you might well come to the decision that it would be better for everybody if belief in the tooth fairy were dispelled. Whatever benefits humanity had to gain from Toothianism in terms of community, comfort and so on could come from other sources, but the specific excesses of radical Toothians simply would not occur without Toothian doctrine. So you’d do whatever you could to challenge general fairy belief as well as belief in the specific fairy which is most popular. You’d see it as doing people a favour.

I’ll let you draw your own parallels to elements of Christianity which appear to non-Christians in much the same light, Katie. The main issue is not usually the simple idea that one is right and others are wrong; it’s the effects that incorrect beliefs have on people that make those beliefs worth challenging.

I will say that your brother-in-law is being awfully confrontational about it, causing so much strife in what is now his own family. It’s obviously not having the desired effect either, so it’s not a great approach in this case.

SmartLX

P.S. Don’t bother spelling “atheism” with a capital A. You wouldn’t spell “theism” with a capital T.

Who’s an atheist then?

“I don’t know whether you simply mean people who are known to have been atheists, or people who actually tried to advance atheism itself.”

Question from Richard:
What are some famous atheists in the 18th, 19th 20th and 21st century?

Answer:
I don’t know whether you simply mean people who are known to have been atheists, like Angelina Jolie or Eddie Vedder, or you want people who have actually worked to advance atheism itself, like Richard Dawkins. Here and here are the two most comprehensive lists I’ve seen. Let me know if you’re after a specific kind of person.

SmartLX

Atheism: The Null Hypothesis

“The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.”

Question from Ted:
I’m debating a friend who, although he is surrounded by scientific-minded people in University, chooses to embrace Christianity. I want to demonstrate to him that in any scientific research condition, the null hypothesis is favored over the alternative hypothesis by default, unless contradictory research can be produced. This would indicate that before the research is even commenced, it is more reasonable to assume that the null hypothesis is true than to remain undecided or accept the alternative hypothesis.

What are some good references that I can use to get this idea across to him?

Answer:
It’s a good way to look at the question of gods, and nobody’s ever challenged me on it when I’ve used it before (not, I think, on ATA). If someone did fight me, though, I think I know how they’d do it.

Any textbook on high school or college/university statistics would be sufficient to give your friend the necessary grounding in the concept of null and alternative hypotheses. This is the easy part, because what you say above is straightforward and self-evident; the null hypothesis by definition is what you accept to be the case if no contrary evidence is found. The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.

Regarding #1, a huge amount of believers are of the opinion that the burden of proof is on atheists because they can’t imagine the world, life, art, love, logic, etc. having come about without a god, and therefore (though they don’t often put it like this) atheism is an alternative hypothesis which needs to be supported with proof that a god wasn’t/isn’t necessary. This response is essentially equivalent to the cosmological, transcendental and/or design arguments for gods, which I and many others have written about before.

Regarding #2, there’s a huge variety of anecdotes and phenomena that believers present as evidence for gods and therefore good reason to reject atheism as a null hypothesis, whether or not it’s actually good evidence or evidence at all. Your friend is liable and entitled to present you with just about anything, so you’ll have to take it as it comes.

The well-known text which comes closest to treating the issue in this manner is God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger. So that’s the one I recommend to you and your friend. Read it yourself first, obviously.

SmartLX

Death: Just Curious

“When a lot of people try to imagine death without an afterlife, what they actually imagine is an afterlife without the scenery; continued consciousness in a dark, silent void.”

Question from Austin:
I respect your choice of being atheist and it doesn’t bother me, in fact i’m very open minded as well.

Since you are atheist what do you think will happen when you die? Will there be nothing? Will you turn into a ghost? I’m just curious what an atheist thinks will happen when they die.

Answer:
There won’t be nothing. There’ll be a body, or the remains of a body. However, the connections in my brain that currently store my memories, personality and identity will be destroyed very quickly as the brain cells die, so “I” will no longer exist and nothing will happen to me anymore.

When they try to imagine death without an afterlife, what a lot of people actually imagine is an afterlife without the scenery: continued consciousness in a dark, silent void. That’s because it’s really very hard to imagine oneself not existing. One’s imagination generally requires one to be there in some form as an observer, in this case as some kind of disembodied soul or ghost. While it’s easier to think of death as a continuation in this way, there’s nothing to back it up. When I die I won’t be around in any form, whether or not I can currently wrap my head around the idea.

So how do I reconcile the concept of final death, and where do I find my comfort? In thoughts of selflessness. The world will go on when I die because other people will live. I’ll have left my mark by simply existing for the short time that I did, but I probably won’t be any kind of focus for the people who come after me. Even if they remember me or follow my advice or teachings or something like that, they’ll do it for their own purposes. I will cease to be important when I cease to be, and that’s fine with me. Further, if I can do things in life which improve the welfare of those who come after, that makes me feel all fuzzy inside.

I should add that I don’t speak for all atheists on this matter. We’ve had a lot of questions from self-proclaimed atheists who do believe in ghosts or spirits, while not believing in gods and therefore remaining a-theists by strict definition. To them I say much the same thing as I say to theists: support your claims.

Incidentally, atheism isn’t a choice. For me it was a realisation. I don’t believe in gods, and I can’t force myself to any more than you could decide not to believe in a god. You could deny your god, but to stop believing in it you’d actually have to be convinced that it’s not there. Likewise, I’d have to be convinced that it is there, and if that happened I’d have no choice but to believe.

SmartLX

Can I still become atheist after confirmation?

“An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods, not someone who’s gone through some kind of ritual or ceremony to “join” atheism.”

Question from Mandi:
I’m 12 and I’ve gone to a Catholic school for all of my school years. Ever since I was young I wondered if there really was a god. I never was really close to my parents and I don’t think I would be able to tell them that I want to become atheist. I was wondering if I could still become atheist after I receive confirmation?

Answer:
Yes.

An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods, not someone who’s gone through some kind of ritual or ceremony to “join” atheism. Whether or not you’ve had the ceremony to officially become a Catholic is irrelevant. If afterwards you don’t actually believe in the Christian god or any other, you may be a Catholic for life in the eyes of the church but you’ll still be an atheist. Even if nobody knows but you.

SmartLX