Why Does/Doesn’t God…

“The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically.”

Sample questions:
Why does God allow/cause bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God heal amputees?

Answer:
Beats me. The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically. I brought up these questions because I think they and others like them are useless in certain situations, but they’re being used anyway.

whywontgodhealamputees.com has been around for a while now. Apologists get a lot of mileage from actually being able to answer the questions it poses, including the main one.

The answers they give stand on scriptural authority, and cannot be debunked from any other angle. If someone says God allows evil as part of free will, and/or that amputations are an effect of the wages of sin (to evangelicals, there is only pain and disease because of the Fall), there’s no way to categorically deny it. Like so many religious answers, they may not be right but the fact that answers exist can be enough to boost the faith of the already-faithful.

I worry that holding these questions aloft as unanswerable by the faithful is too similar to the apologist/creationist technique of repeatedly asking questions atheists and “Darwinists” supposedly can’t answer, e.g. “Why are there no transitional fossils?” or “If there’s no God, why is it wrong to kill?” Of course there are answers to these (if you don’t know them, ask) and atheists and others take confidence from having these answers, and the answers are actually likely to be correct, but the few seconds immediately after the questions are posed are all some believers need to get a warm, smug feeling of superiority. After that, they’re free to stop listening or reading.

I’m not saying that questions like this about gods are entirely useless. They can be devastating to an individual’s faith. I know Christians who struggle daily with the problem of evil. They’re still Christians, but on an intellectual and emotional level they just can’t reconcile the perfection of God with the tragedies they see on the nightly news. They can go and find answers, but they’re likely to find several answers to the same question coming from the same religion, which erodes its authority on the matter somewhat. In this fashion, I went from Christian to agnostic a long time ago. (Atheism took longer.)

I’m just saying that questions with answers, any answers at all, make bad rhetorical questions. In the larger debate we imagine, with all the big arguments for each religious or irreligious position fighting an ethereal battle in the air above us, questions that don’t keep the top apologists stumped are counter-productive when posed to anybody as stumpers. Just let people mull over them, arbitrary answers and all.

SmartLX

Theology

“The apparent reality is that theology-based apologetics have been completely exhausted, and have not found their target.”

Question:
Self-appointed spokespeople for atheism, from Richard Dawkins downward, are woefully ignorant of the wealth of theology handed down to us by centuries’ worth of religious scholars. How can they claim to be qualified to discuss God at all, without looking like fools to all educated theologians?

Short answer:
Those parts of theology that are not irrelevant are ineffective.

Less short answer:
The bulk of theology is concerned not with the existence of gods, but with the nature of particular gods, usually the God of Abraham. (That’s one way to denote the deity worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.) It works on the accepted premise of His existence most of the time, so that it can attempt to discern His wishes and therefore inform human behaviour.

If the existence of the god is the point in question, the premise is unsettled and any conclusions from this kind of inquiry are moot. Thus the vast majority of theology is useless to atheists and agnostics, as long as they maintain those positions.

The remaining theology which does attempt to establish the existence of the relevant god(s) is in a category known as philosophy of religion. This is the stuff which might be useful in a discussion between a believer and a non-believer. That’s why every major argument this field has ever produced has already been thrown at atheists in the course of discussions and debates over the last few years.

Atheists cannot ignore philosophy of religion, because it’s shoved in our faces at every opportunity. It’s the source of such brain-twisters as the transcendental argument, the appeals to fear like Pascal’s Wager and the it-must-have-happened interpretations of Resurrection accounts. This is theology’s moment to shine, and all the big guns have come out.

So how’s it doing? Not great. I’m happy to assert without posting statistics that atheism is increasingly common, especially among young people. Attendance at religious services is falling, and those churches which are growing are more often than not cannibalising the congregations of other churches. The big guns of atheism, Dawkins, Dennett et al, are not given a moment’s pause by the apologetic hurled at them, and they can say exactly why in each case.

There are many religious folks who think, “If only they would read this particular book about God, they’d change their minds.” If they haven’t read the book, some eager evangelist has probably paraphrased it for them, and had a reply shot back.

The apparent reality is that theology-based apologetics have been completely exhausted, and have not found their target. The reassuring idea that atheists are only atheists because of their own ignorance disintegrates when you consider the constant, all-guns-blazing proselytism forcibly educating them from all sides.

If theology has something new to say that might actually affect this ongoing debate, it’s not just sitting in the open and being ignored. It needs to be unearthed and brought to bear. Now.

SmartLX

Same-Sex Marriage

“Since it does appear that the secular arguments presented by the anti-SSM movement have little value, the only reasons left are the Scriptural ones they are so eager to keep in the background.”

Question:
Fundamentalists of most major religions are against same-sex marriage on religious principle; they believe it is against the will of their deities. However, is there any merit to the other, non-scriptural arguments they present to outsiders?

Answer:
I felt like weighing in on this issue after seeing the campaign and site by the National Organization for Marriage in the US.

The lobbies and congregations that make up the Christian Right have realised that those who are less religious than they are (i.e. the majority) will not accept the dogmatic arguments from Scripture with which they have convinced themselves, and are using broader approaches. This is reasonable, and is the best way for religious organisations to pursue their interests in a secular society, if the replacement arguments are actually valid. If not, it’s a form of deception.

I’m about to summarise the non-Scriptural arguments against same-sex marriage (SSM) by paraphrasing the site above. I’m doing my best not to create any straw men with this approach, but if I do so anyway, tell me off.

1. Same-sex marriages deprive children of either a mother or a father.

This is true, but that mother or father is replaced with either another father or another mother. In principle, the number of adults caring for the children is the same, and the proportion of men and women raising the children depends very little on the parents themselves. Children without mothers for example can have aunts, grandmothers, big sisters, cousins, nannies, friends of the parents and so on.

In practice, no significant difference in development, social life or even sexual tendency has been found between children with same-sex parents and children with different-sex parents. Anti-SSM literature appears to focus entirely on studies of children of single parents, who are missing a mother or father for very different reasons. Such research, while important, is irrelevant to the issue of the gender of existing parents.

2. Public and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage will reduce religious freedom. Believers, churches and religious charities such as the Salvation Army will be unable to practice unless they endorse same-sex marriage.

Individual religious freedom and that of churches will be unaffected. It’s already illegal in the USA to discriminate against homosexuals, but the right of evangelical Christians and their pastors to believe, announce and advertise that homosexuality is sinful is protected by free speech and, importantly, “freedom of religion”.

What will be curtailed is individual freedom to discriminate in practical ways, as has already happened with progress in racial equality and gay rights. The central example is the staff at artificial insemination clinics and adoption agencies: some of them don’t want to be forced to give kids to gay couples. If their reasons for this are religious, their faith is about to conflict with their current jobs, but they are free to find work elsewhere in their respective industries. If instead their reason actually is reason 1 above, it’s not a good reason.

Finally, religious charities and other organisations have nothing additional to worry about. They’re already in trouble if they discriminate against gays. I don’t see why they would discriminate against children of gay couples, because
a. the kids’ upbringing isn’t the kids’ fault, and
b. if they really think same-sex parents are worse, they would conclude that the kids need more help.

3. If we change the definition of marriage, what’s to stop us from changing it further to allow polygamy, marriage to animals, underage marriages, etcetera? (Paraphrased from a point on the site’s .pdf handout, Why Marriage Matters. To be fair, these guys only mentioned polygamy.)

There is indeed an extremely small minority which would like marriage to be further expanded in these ways. Some, like those in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, go ahead and practice polygamy without looking for endorsement. Many others have less formal “open marriages”.

The difference is in the practical benefits of each change. Once same-sex marriage is allowed, every adult will be allowed to marry a consenting adult of their choice, with whom they can have a happy intimate relationship, and raise a family in accordance with their common human desires. This gives everyone an ability that was once only available to some, and so negates a now-arbitrary piece of discrimination.

Other changes to marriage do not confer similar benefits, and carry additional drawbacks. Polygamy does not extend the chance for marriage and a family to anyone who doesn’t already have it. Underage marriage and marriage to animals are cruel to the partner who is unable to consent.

This is why it most benefits humanity to extend marriage so far and no further, and why no one need be afraid that the floodgates will open, so to speak.

Since it does appear that the secular arguments presented by the anti-SSM movement have little value, the only reasons left are the Scriptural ones they are so eager to keep in the background. Once those are the remaining line of defense, they have no place in the political sphere, at least in a country which has declared church and state separate. For the rest of the world, though, it’s a bit muckier.

SmartLX

Atheism and Agnosticism

“I consider myself an agnostic atheist.”

Question from Pat:
Can someone be both an atheist and an agnostic?

Answer:
Yes. I consider myself an agnostic atheist.

An agnostic lacks gnosis, or knowledge of the divine (if any). He or she does not know whether there are any gods. Some agnostics go one step further and think it is impossible to know this.

An atheist lacks belief in any gods. An agnostic, who does not know, may not believe either and therefore be an atheist too. That’s my current position.

On the other hand an agnostic may believe in spite of not knowing, and therefore be an agnostic theist. Most religious folks who don’t claim personal experiences of their gods are in this category.

The only atheists who aren’t agnostics are those who think they know that there are no gods. This is a step further than “strong atheists”, who positively believe there are no gods but don’t claim to know for sure.

Most of the time, however, atheism co-exists with agnosticism.

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 #6: Pascal’s Wager

“What if you’re wrong?”

Question:
While Pascal’s own Pensees is more in-depth, this is the basic version presented by most evangelists: If God exists and you live as if He does, your reward is infinite. If God does not exist and you live as if He does, you lose nothing. If God does not exist and you live as if He doesn’t, you gain nothing. If God exists and you live as if He doesn’t, your punishment is infinite. Therefore if there is the slightest chance that God exists, by any analysis of benefit it is better to live as if He does, in other words believe in and worship Him.

The same argument is often expressed in shorter form: “What if you’re wrong?”

Answer:
This is an argument I’ve been answering constantly ever since I started on the original ATA. No matter how many times it comes up, there are always those who think it’s a brand new, ingenious zinger which will take us by surprise. I’ll refer back to here in future.

There are five main issues with the Wager, any one of which would render it nonsensical or inadequate.

1. It presents a false dilemma: that either God exists or no god does.

There is an obvious third option, namely that any deity besides the expected god exists. If the real deity is Thor, for example, the punishment for Christians is infinite (possibly worse than for atheists, who at least do not worship a rival god).

Humans have imagined something like 20,000 different major deities or equivalents so far. Together with the countless ones we haven’t thought of yet, there are an infinite number of possible gods. Without evidence for any particular god, all gods share equal probability of practically zero, and the probability of a particular god existing is infinitesimal compared to the probability of one or more rival gods, so worshipping any god is a hugely bad bet.

The response to this, I know, is to argue that there is evidence for your particular god and not for any of the others. That’s a valid response, if true. However, if you have proof positive that your god is the one and only there’s no need to mess around with probabilities, so you don’t need to use Pascal’s Wager in the first place. Just push your evidence instead.

2. If there are no gods, you don’t lose nothing by living as if there is one. You lose plenty.

You spend hundreds or thousands of hours attending religious services. You give money to organisations whose primary purpose is not to help people but to convert them. You prevent yourself from doing some things you enjoy, not because they hurt anyone but because a book told you to. And so on.

3. Belief in gods is not a choice.

A person either believes there’s a god or doesn’t. This may change, but it’s not a conscious decision by the person. Her or she has to be convinced, or else no longer convinced, one way or the other. The idea that it’s beneficial to believe in a god does not support the idea that there is one. They’re two independent issues.

4. Any decent god would spot a faker.

This is related to the third point. If an atheist were convinced that it’s beneficial to believe in and worship God, he or she could certainly worship, but would still not believe. The worship would therefore be insincere on a fundamental level. It’d be a farce, maintained to give the appearance of belief. Would the Christian god, for example, accept this lip service?

It’s said by some religious folks that if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, belief will come. I don’t doubt it; if you pray as if there’s a god there for long enough, you may manage to forget that there isn’t. If brainwashing yourself like this is the only way to believe, however, are you really doing the right thing?

5. Is belief really the key?

What if one specific god does exist, but the important thing is not that one believes in Him/Her? Counter to the evangelist perspective, but what if works trump grace/faith/being “saved” in terms of brownie points in the real Heaven?

In short, Pascal’s Wager uses an incomplete and incorrect premise, and is useless to nonbelievers even if they agree with it. Blaise Pascal himself supports it in the Pensees by arguing separately for the existence of the specific Christian god from several angles, which is exactly the response to issue 1 I’ve described which makes the Wager redundant. By itself, it’s just pointless.

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #5: Prophecies

“…false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time.”

Question:
The basic form of this argument is that the Bible or some other holy text predicted some event or phenomenon its author(s) could not possibly have known about without divine inspiration. Examples: Jesus’ life and death fulfilled hundreds of prophecies made about him in the Old Testament, every detail of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack was laid out in Revelations, the Bible or Quran describes scientific facts only discovered later by scientists themselves.

Answer:
Claimed predictions by the Bible (from which my examples will be drawn, since they’re what I’ve mostly received) and other old texts are presented along with a false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time. There are a number of other possibilities for each supposed prophecy or prediction, which are generally more likely than either. The names below aren’t universal, they’re my own.

1. High Probability of Success: the event predicted was likely almost to the point of certainty, especially given unlimited time in which to occur.

In Jeremiah 49:16, the fall of the city of Edom was prophesied. Edom had many enemies, including Israel, and was regularly at war. Which was more likely, that it would triumph forever or that at some stage it would be destroyed?

2. Still Unknown: the fact given by the text is in dispute even today.

Christians credit the Bible with foreknowledge of cosmology for saying that the universe had a beginning. Even if this is correct, it had a one in two chance which is hardly imposing odds. Importantly, though, the Big Bang might be the very beginning or it may have been caused by some precursor. There’s still the possibility of an eternally old universe or multiverse. Claiming credit for predicting a beginning at this point is like trying to collect your winnings from a horse race before it’s ended.

3. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: the very existence of the prophecy assists in its fulfilment.

There were prophecies, at least as told in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that the captive Jews would return to their homeland of Israel. Assuming for now that the non-supernatural parts of the stories are true to begin with, the Jews themselves knew of this prophecy. They believed God had stated directly that they would return. To do so was to obey His will. No wonder they did everything they could to get back.

In a more general sense, the Bible lays out a complete future history of Israel and Jerusalem. The Jews there do everything in their power to follow the instructions as far as rebuilding and protecting it, and largely use the actions of the Muslims to fill in the bits about invasion, destruction and exile.

4. Shoehorned: the text only applies to reality or to the present day through an unwarranted act of lateral interpretation.

Isaiah 40:22 says, “It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth.” Some take this as a signal that the author knew ahead of everyone else that the Earth is a sphere, when the word “circle” seems more likely to refer to the apparent disc one sees when one looks out from atop a mountain. The now-all-but-defunct Flat Earth Society, which believed the statement as much as any other Christian group, maintained their position of a flat Earth because they interpreted it as I do.

5. Made to Order: accounts of a subsequent event were in fact tailored to fit the prophecy.

This possibility is most often applicable to the story of Jesus. The authors of the Gospels had access to the writings of Isaiah et al, and had every opportunity to make sure their own accounts lined up with the old prophecies. Jesus, after all, would have been just one of an army of self-proclaimed Messiahs at the time. He needed everything possible to make him stand out, and that meant fitting the bill to the letter.

This list is not a direct accusation that any of the above is in fact the case for any given prediction in an ancient text (extending beyond religion, to writers like Nostradamus). However, any given prediction in texts I’ve read can be explained by one or several of the above. These extra possibilities must therefore be considered in addition to the false dilemma of chance or God. In this company, divine inspiration is less of a sure thing to say the least.

So what kind of a prediction would bypass all of the above and appear truly, plainly supernatural in its accuracy? Simple: one that we are able to test ourselves, without any prior knowledge. An obvious example is the Rapture: if it happens, those of us who are left will know that prediction was right. You can’t engineer the Rapture, or interpret the bodily disapparation of every Christian (of only one denomination, you would assume) any other way.

For a less extreme example, say that instead of interpreting dates gone by to match counts of days in the Bible, someone uses Revelations to predict the day of a future earthquake in Los Angeles, far in advance of seismologists. It could still be coincidence, but it couldn’t be Shoehorned or Made to Order. Further, the chances are low, the outcome is known and the prophet couldn’t fulfil it him/herself without a nuclear weapon.

That, therefore, is what believers in Biblical prophecy need to do in order to score credibility: use the old texts to make new and accurate predictions, instead of cultivating awe for those gone by. Many do try this, of course, and so there’s a growing list of dates for the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Second Coming and lesser events like the collapse of the United States. So far, all of these dates have passed by uneventfully.

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.

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #3: Cosmological

“My aim is make this a reference for any subsequent “origin” questions.”

Question:
This is the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God, in the form of the popular Kalam Cosmological Argument:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
Following on from that, the cause of the universe must have been eternal and therefore without cause. Besides being eternal, this Uncaused Cause must have been all-powerful and all-knowing, as it literally created everything else. It must be God.

Answer:
My aim is make this a reference for any subsequent “origin” questions.

The Cosmological Argument or Argument from First Cause is the proper form of the common argument that the universe must have been deliberately created, and you can’t get “something from nothing”. It predates Christianity, as Plato and Aristotle had their own versions.

That’s the first issue with the argument: it only attempts to prove the existence of a Creator. It is therefore a deist argument, so when a theist uses it to prove a specific god with no further logic it’s a step too far. Keep an eye out for this.

The basic premise that everything finite requires a cause is the least controversial part, but even this isn’t rock solid. Possible exceptions are found in quantum mechanics, where particles move about in a probabilistic fashion. Until observed, a particle may be anywhere in a small area, and in a sense is everywhere in the area. When you observe it, it picks one spot and stays there. This is of course a gross oversimplification, but the point is that there’s no known force moving the particles around. There may actually be no cause as such, and the universe may be far more spontaneous than we think.

Even “something from nothing” is plausible according to a related theory that “nothing” is really a quantum foam from which matter may emerge. This is purely theoretical at the moment (it makes mathematical sense, but there’s not much physical evidence), but it’s worth remembering that science is actually considering ways like this in which matter could just pop out of “nothing”. It can’t be dismissed entirely.

Causality may also be irrelevant if time wasn’t linear at the beginning, if it had a beginning. An effect must follow its cause, but this is meaningless if chronological order hasn’t settled down yet.

The universe is widely regarded by lay people (who aren’t young-earth creationists) to have begun with the Big Bang. This may seem counterintuitive – how can something be created by an explosion instead of destroyed? – but it was no ordinary explosion. All the matter and energy in the universe was compressed into a singularity, a point so small it had no volume at all. (Absurd as this sounds, it happens today with large amounts of matter in the centres of black holes.) Then it expanded outwards, and it’s still expanding to this day. Once the matter was in that singularity, nothing was created or destroyed, only distrubuted.

How did the matter get in there? Was the Big Bang the true beginning, or a continuation of something else? We haven’t a clue. A god is one hypothesis. Other universes, with their own separate systems of time and space, are another. The quantum foam is an outside chance. Who knows what else we haven’t thought of.

I like the idea of a multiverse, an eternal group or series of universes setting each other off. It’s got one up on gods because it’s multiple instances of a known object. We know there’s at least one universe (this one), while we don’t have a single example of an established god. If you see a huge cabbage patch where the whole crop’s been eaten, and you find one fat little rabbit in the corner, do you assume that Bigfoot must have done most of the damage? No, you wonder where all the other rabbits are hiding.

The theory of expansion and contraction, of many Big Bangs and Big Crunches, has fallen apart recently with the discovery that the expansion of the universe is apparently accelerating. That means it will never return to the singularity, and it is not cyclical in the way we thought. That doesn’t stop it from being cyclical in other ways, for example stretching until it tears a hole and then draining out to somewhere else.

The point is that if you do accept that everything finite must have a cause, something must be eternal. Either it’s the universe/multiverse, or it’s a god. There are many theories, and potentially many more, which allow for an eternal universe which needs no cause. Therefore an eternal god is not the only option, and anything which says so is a poor attempted proof of its existence.

SmartLX

Note: The argument that a god created the universe based on the universe’s nature, order, awesomeness, etc. is not related to causality. It’s the Argument from Design, which is next on the GBA hitlist.