Why We Aren’t All Smelling Our Butts Right Now

Question from Blink:
Hi guys. A theist asked me this question.

“Why are our eyes (not the anus) placed near our nose? Can you imagine how disturbing it would be if it were placed below our nose in place of our mouth!”

This is one of the many reasons why he believes in God.

I don’t know how to respond to this question, my instinct tells me maybe it has something to do with evolution. What is the appropriate respond to his question? Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
The anus is placed away from the mouth and nose because if any of our ancestors had developed the two close together, the species would have quickly been wiped out by anal-oral and anal-respiratory infections. On the other hand, the anus is placed near the genitalia and there’s a constant risk of infection between the two because that kind of infection isn’t usually enough to cause a major obstacle to survival, and there hasn’t been any major selection pressure to change it.

To make the same point more generally, if something being the case confers some kind of survival advantage, or if the alternative would make survival difficult, evolution is likely to encourage it to happen, because life will be easier at every stage for those who are closer to the ideal. Bad “ideas” are weeded out when the life forms that manifest them die.

But forget about evolution for a minute. Your theist asks why a particular thing is the case, and implies that if you don’t know, God must have done it. How utterly arrogant to think that just because the two of you may not be aware of any other explanations, reality must align perfectly with what HE thinks. This is a classic argument from ignorance, and the more people know what that is, the better for logic and reason in the world.

The Determination Of The Universe

Question from Alejandro:
Message: I was debating (not formally) in my university about the existence of a god, and we ended up in the topic of determinism. My theist opposition argued that determinism would prove the existence of (their) god, that it would prove that, say, life was determined to exist by physics and chemistry, so there is a teleology in it.

In sum, they said the old adage: “Laws require a lawgiver”.

I believe this is a very common argument theists make to atheists, and some don’t know how to answer that.

Does determinism prove there is a god?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a common argument all right. Actually it’s two different ones mashed together, so let’s split them up.

Determinism means that everything that’s ever happened or will ever happened was destined to happen from the very beginning, if indeed there was a beginning. God’s plan is one interpretation of this, and a highly disturbing one because it implies that everything bad that’s ever happened was God’s plan, including all the people who’ve gone to hell. There was no way they could have done anything other than commit the sins that damned them.

Another valid interpretation of determinism is that it all simply happened because it had to, without any plan at all. Some very interesting stuff has happened, like the emergence of life and Beethoven’s Fifth and that amazing coincidence that happened to you last week, but in a universe as enormous as ours you would expect at least a few amazing things to happen by chance in a few corners of a few galaxies. If billions of people played the same lottery at million-to-one odds, you’d get thousands of winners.

Finally, regardless of any of the above, determinism can’t establish a god until determinism itself is shown to be true, and it hasn’t been. Decades ago quantum mechanics put paid to our self-assurance that every particle must have a plan, by telling us that a particle’s exact position can be a matter of probability, with no apparent reason why it’s in one spot and not another. Until the accurate predictions of quantum mechanics can all be explained by another completely different and intrinsically determined mechanism, determinism cannot be assumed to be reality.

The second argument is the argument from design, in this case applied to the origin of life. I covered it very broadly in my Great Big Arguments series, and I’ve written a few things on the fine-tuning argument which you might find relevant. Briefly, just because the universe supports life does not mean the universe was designed for life.

Intelligence. How?

Question from Chan:
How does chance and random variation create human intelligence with all its “design capabilities”?

If evolution is driven by chance and necessity does it mean that human intelligence is merely an illusion?

Answer by SmartLX:
If evolution were purely a matter of random variations, it wouldn’t produce anything useful. Fortunately for us there’s a second major element, and it’s the one Darwin figured out: natural selection. Out of all the mutations in a given species (and, for instance, each new human has about 120) the ones which are actually useful become the most persistent in future generations, simply because they help their hosts to survive and procreate a little better than their peers.

It’s like dispatching a thousand people to search a ruin for treasure; most of them might find nothing, but when one guy turns up a gold coin more of the people will search in that area. It’s a highly inefficient process, but it can afford to be because evolution has had billions of years and trillions of individual life forms in which to work.

As for human intelligence, it’s a natural extension of the intelligence we see in dogs or apes. Dogs can learn jobs and tricks, and some apes can even make tools so “design capabilities” are not unique to humans. Smarter creatures generally work out ways to survive and outdo their competitors, so for any creature with a brain there’s some upward “selection pressure” on intelligence. After hundreds of millions of years of competing animals, it’s not so surprising that an animal as intelligent as homo sapiens has emerged.

There are some philosophical ideas that everything is an illusion, but intelligence is no more illusive than any other abstract concept of a physical quality, because it has effects in the real world. It can be tested, for example with IQ tests (which test very limited areas of intelligence, but still). There are things only animals of a certain level of intelligence can do, like recognise themselves in a mirror. We have a set of criteria which will allow us to acknowledge when computers achieve artificial intelligence, though these have not yet been met. Anyway, the process that produced intelligence in natural creatures is irrelevant to whether it’s a real thing now. There’s enough evidence that it is.

What A Wonderful…World

Question from Camary:
How do you think you’re here today?

Question from Devon:
With no belief in God or Creation, how do you explain the beauty of this world?

Question from Ethan:
How can you think something so complex, something so wonderful as the world can be made out of a big bang?

Answer by SmartLX:
These questions all fit into a category I typically mark with the tag “origins”.

My big article on the apparent design of the world is #4 in my Great Big Arguments series. (Search the site for “great big arguments” and you might save yourself some research, or else want to do more.) It’s got bits about the origin of life, the perception of beauty, the evolution of intelligence and so on. If you’d like to discuss something in more detail, put a comment either here or on that page. (I see all new comments, even on old pages.)

Notice that all the questions above say “how can/do you think/explain…” You folks are challenging me to explain something, so what if I couldn’t? Why would I accept your explanation even then, if I don’t believe in the thing you’re using to explain it? Why would I assume the presence of something even more wonderful, even more exotic and even less explicable than the entire universe and everything in it, which nevertheless has no available, substantial evidence for it? That would just make things worse.

Fine-Tuned Gravity: Don’t Touch That Dial

Question from Cedric:
Victor Stenger says supporters of the Fine Tuning argument make the mistake of holding all the parameters constant and varying just one. He says “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”

“The ingredients for life” is a more complex case since it involves several parameters but if one were to examine a simpler case involving only one parameter then the legitimacy of Fine Tuning might be easier to discern.

Take the force of gravity. The Fine Tuning argument says it had to be precisely what it is in order for the universe to expand as it did after the Big Bang. Too strong and the universe would collapse back to a singularity. Too weak and the universe would expand too rapidly. This doesn’t seem to depend on other parameters. So doesn’t the exactness of gravity alone imply design?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’re going to circumvent Stenger’s argument by focusing on a single value, gravity is the wrong one to pick because it didn’t have to be all that exact. In Martin Rees’ book Just Six Numbers he finds that the gravitational constant would have to increase by a factor of 3000 to preclude the formation of stars. (I’ve never seen anyone use the same approach on another constant, so I suspect none of the others have similarly obvious independent significance.)

Creationists and other apologists have not contradicted Rees; they’ve taken two other approaches to dismissing this inconvenient amount of leeway. Both are found in this article, which is typical of a fair few apologetic articles attacking Rees’ conclusion of a lack of fine tuning. (Their abundance suggests to me that Rees struck a nerve.)

1. If gravity were nearly 3000 times stronger, they say, stars wouldn’t last even a billion years and life wouldn’t have time to form, so the universe is still fine-tuned for the really important thing, life. Well, the fact that this aspect of the extreme case isn’t workable doesn’t negate the fact that gravity could change an awful lot before there was any real difficulty.

2. A factor of 3000, they say, is still tiny when you consider that the different forces in the universe differ by factors of up to 10^40. True, but it’s still 300,000% so it’s huge compared to the actual value, and there’s no evidence to suggest that gravitational forces in a fresh universe are even capable of reaching the levels of our universe’s strong nuclear force. There’s an underlying assumption that each of the constants was selected from the same huge or infinite range of possible numbers, and there’s no basis for that assumption.

Even if gravity had to be what it really is for life to form, to within a zillionth of a percent, it would not simply “imply design”. We don’t know nearly enough about what went into the physical “setting” of the constant to jump to that conclusion. Alternatives include but are not limited to the following:

– A huge or even infinite number of universes exist, each of them with different constants, such that the probability of one of them hitting the magic spot is really quite reasonable. Ridicule the multiverse hypothesis if you like, but evidence has emerged suggesting its likelihood. (Additional universes seem more likely to me than a god because we know there’s at least one universe. If your cabbage patch is destroyed and you find one little rabbit, you don’t imagine that Bigfoot did the rest; you wonder where the other rabbits are hiding.)
– The value of the gravitational constant is a result, not a parameter. When a Big Bang happens, gravity comes out at 6.673 because of how a Big Bang happens, or else the constant is dependent on the other constants. (Pi is a good analogue for this; the value near 3.14 results from the physical properties of a circle.)
– The gravitational constant might have started anywhere, but it varied before it reached a stable equilibrium at its current value. Something about 6.673 stops it from wanting to shift. (This is one possible explanation for cosmic inflation.)

Finally, if you disregard all of the above, we’re ultimately comparing the probability that a universe with incredibly fortunate physical qualities arose naturally to the probability that it was designed by an even more complex, exotic, powerful, hypothetical entity with no origin at all. That might be a contest if the existence of the other entity were assumed, but you can’t take that liberty when the whole point of the discussion is to establish that entity’s existence.

Dawkins’ Reasoning

“For something like a god to form by any known undirected process, it’d have to start out simple and proceed slowly.”

Question from Amber:
In his book “The God Delusion”, Professor Dawkins states that given the improbability of life originating in the universe, the creator would presumably have to be as improbable, if not more. Please expound upon this, for I do not quite understand why probable creator cannot do improbable things without being improbable himself(I say ‘himself’ for the sake of convenience). Also, Richard notes that the creator of the universe would have to be a simple one (to start out from nothing?), God is complex thus he could not have created the universe?

Answer:

Creationists and other theists argue that one reason life must have been deliberately created is that it’s so complex. By that logic, God as understood by most religions is even more likely to have been created because an all-powerful, all-knowing being would have to be more complex than any known life, or even the whole universe. If God exists without a creator, why is is less likely for beings infinitely less complex, like you and me, to do the same?

Dawkins’ other point is that complexity in the universe has arisen very gradually over time, right up until the first living things existed and could design their own creations (most likely pre-human primates shaping rocks). Life, for example, took a billion years after the formation of Earth just to get started and then a billion more to get past microscopic organisms. For something like a god to form by any known undirected process, it’d have to start out simple and proceed slowly.

If on the other hand God can have existed forever without having formed at all, why is it less likely that the (less complex) universe itself has always existed in some form? Why does the insertion of an even more complex entity into our origins help us at all?

– 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

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

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