There Will Always Be an Argument About Information

Question from Sam:
Hi, so I was casually surfing the web when I came across a video in “Answers in Genesis” which was basically said it could disprove evolution in 3 minutes with two simple facts. The second fact, which they championed, made the claim that it was impossible (there are no possible means by which this can occur) to add to genetic code in any way, meaning there was no possible way for an aquatic creature to create genetic code to grow legs, etc. (Disproving evolution) Of course, I questioned this bold claim, especially since they were extremely vague about their sources and provided no sources or further material for study. As such, I haven’t a clue how they came upon this claim, or the legitimacy of it, could you lend some further insight into this?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m assuming the first of the two facts didn’t do anything for you, which does not surprise me.

The source of the claim amounts to “it stands to reason” which is what people say when they don’t want to bother reasoning through something. It’s one variant of the argument from ignorance I’m always pointing out, specifically, “I personally don’t know how additions can be made to a genome, therefore there is no way.” People don’t know this because they literally have not checked at all, because the relevant material can be found online in seconds.

This TalkOrigins article from 2001 fits the bill nicely. The mechanisms by which information is added to the genome are quite simple, for instance gene duplication, or essentially random noise from mutations. What’s harder to comprehend is how this information proves useful, and particularly allows new features to emerge.

The answer to this is straightforward though the detail is immense if you drill into it: natural selection helps to eliminate the information which is not useful, leaving that which is. There are countless analogies for this, so to pick one arbitrarily, genetic material is thrown into an arena and under constant attack, so whatever survives does so because it makes a difference to the fight.

The true difficulty is in convincing creationists that this kind of argument doesn’t convince anybody, which does seem to be true in my experience; its purpose nowadays is instead to reassure creationists. Or perhaps they know this already, but it doesn’t stop them from using it to reassure each other.

Atheism Before Darwin

Question from Amanda:
Where did atheists believe humans came from before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some information on this here. There were theories of what would come to be called evolution long before Darwin, though none that fit the evidence nearly so well. Among some biologists there were inklings of the basic concept of common descent, for instance the idea that humans and apes were related, but without the strength of Darwinian theory this opinion was highly controversial and one risked one’s reputation by airing it.

So for the lay atheist minority worldwide, our best answer to your question was that they just didn’t know. Since they didn’t think a god existed, let alone created humanity, they reasoned that there must have been a natural mechanism to allow modern life forms to develop some time after the birth of the planet. With what they knew then, they were unable to take it any further.

This basically meant that evolution in that period was in the same position abiogenesis (the initial emergence of simple life from non-life) is in now. No mechanism was clear despite various conjectures, but if a god didn’t seem likely to you then this inspired confidence that a mechanism existed and might eventually be found. Darwin came through for his field, but we’re still waiting for “the Darwin of abiogenesis”. While we wait (and while some of us work at it), we have to content ourselves with not knowing, because to demand an answer when information is lacking is to open ourselves to a wrong answer.

The Concept of The Blind Watchmaker

Question from James:
Why does Richard Dawkins use the analogy of a “blind watchmaker” to describe natural selection?

Answer by SmartLX:
Straight from Wikipedia:
“In his choice of the title for this book, Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology.[1] Paley, writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker.”

Essentially, natural selection clearly does not plan. Paley’s argument is that if a watch suggests the existence of a watchmaker, the supposed appearance of design in living things should suggest the existence of a designer, but on closer inspection life is not as it would have been if designed by an entity with all its faculties intact. The reasons given by Dawkins include vestigial organs and features, inefficient physical arrangements of a body’s components (like the recurrent laryngeal nerve), inefficient solutions to simple problems, easily avoidable susceptibilities to malfunction, disease and death (see here for examples in humans), and needlessly expensive competition between individual organisms. Life functions, sometimes barely, but it could be so much better if someone had actually designed it rather than natural selection procedurally applying the simplest short-term solution to everything.

We’re Looking for a Few Good Mutations

Question from Nick:
How do you refute the argument that it is mathematically impossible for “good” mutations to occur and that evolution is mathematically impossible, and thus not a real theory, but a pseudoscience?

Short answer by SmartLX:
With evidence.

Okay, longer answer by SmartLX:
The idea that beneficial mutations are “mathematically” impossible is based on easily addressed misunderstandings of the process. The fact that the idea is so widely held by creationists despite being so easily addressed speaks to a common reluctance among their number to accept simple facts, if those facts are inconvenient.

A very simple counter to the claim is the fact that most individual mutations can potentially be reversed in subsequent generations. This is an observed and well-known phenomenon straightforwardly called reverse mutation. The list of reversible mutations includes many that would be regarded as “bad” or detrimental to survival and procreation. The reverse of these mutations would by definition be “good”, so there’s no barrier to this whatsoever.

The other effective counter is the set of beneficial mutations that have been observed. You can look them up on Google, or follow up on the short list given here. Most famously, the Lenski E.coli experiment tightly controlled an isolated population of E.coli and documented its acquisition, via repeatable mutation, of the ability to metabolise (eat) the citrate in its environment. The bacteria couldn’t do it, then they could. Creationists did everything they could to discredit this and failed pretty badly. We had our own little argument over it in the comments here (search the page for keyword “Lenski”).

The Universe Itself Keeps On Expanding, And Expanding…

Question from Andreas:
I know, this may have already been answered, but this piece of information so far successfully hid from my search for knowledge. This is why I’d like to ask a physicist
— Lawrence Krauss — these two questions regarding space and time.

Question 1:
First, as I get it, since Einstein there is no universal time, but a space-time. (Newton was so much easier to grasp for a simple human mind.) Means, space and time are tied together, influence each other and got into existence at the same time which was the big bang. Am I right so far?
Thus space started to exist and to expand since then, as did time — start to exist, that is.

So here comes my first question, because I don’t understand a “what was before” question I sometimes read or am asked (mostly by religious people). I don’t claim to understand Einstein, and I assume only a dozen people on Earth fully do — so maybe I got it all wrong, which is why I have to get this answered.
Is it true that there was no time before the big bang? If so, why are people asking themselves, how and when and why the big bang took place? It cannot be answered (well, the how can be answered to an extent) when there was no time in existence before, so there was no “before the big bang”… or what did I get wrong here?
And the implications? Am I right about shaking my head if people ask the “but what was before” question?!?

Question 2:
Another issue I have with time is distance, the speed of light and our view into the universe. Due to the limitation of the speed of light, we look backwards in time when we look into the universe and see distant galaxies. So we see the past. The farther away a star/galaxy is, the older the image we see. So how do we know if it’s still there? How do we know if a galaxy very far out, in a distant past, isn’t long gone and its stars exploded in nova and supernova explosions? And how far can we look back? I once read that the farthest out we can see is the actual time of the plasma that was “shortly” after the big bang… and we cannot see past that. And that we can see residual “background noise.” If that is true, how can we have a current picture of the universe? Isn’t everything we think about it an extrapolation of a past situation—the only thing that we can see, but we have to calculate how it might have developed since then to now in order to have a full understanding of the universe in its present state?

Isn’t it therefore impossible to have a clear picture of the universe, its number of galaxies, its size etc.? It could be no more than a wild guess, like “yes, we see the images, but we cannot put it together in one map of the current (state of the) universe…”

Those were my two questions.
I am really looking forward to seeing them answered by someone who actually understands what he’s saying, and can even do the calculations (e.g. the time+distance thing), as this gives me headaches for a year or two now, and I just couldn’t find it anywhere else… yet.

The biggest thanks in advance!

Answer by SmartLX:
With the disclaimer that I am absolutely not Lawrence Krauss, I’m happy to help.

Question 1:
There are multiple cosmological models with some kind of Big Bang, and there is a form of time “before” it in some of them. When considering the multiverse hypothesis in particular, you have to consider the possibility that before our system of space-time began others might already have been running. (“Before” in this context relates to causality; if something in another system of space-time caused ours to emerge, you can think of the cause coming before the effect.) If indeed there was no time before the Big Bang, though, then the “before” question is indeed inapplicable, and our ideas of cause and effect have a hard time applying as well.

To summarise in the context of the religiously-charged “what was before” question, we don’t know whether there was a before, if there was a before there didn’t have to be a god in it, and if there wasn’t a before then the Cosmological Argument is nonsensical. The Argument from Contingency is a version that attempts to get around the time-based limitations, but it still has most of the same flaws.

Question 2:
Statistically speaking, we know many stars we can see are long “dead”. Our sun has a total lifespan of about ten billion years, and the larger a star is the sooner it burns out. The best telescopes can pick up images from several billion light years away, and some of the far-out stars are hundreds or thousands of times bigger than the Sun. Even one billion light years out, time will be up for a significant percentage of them since they’ve had to last another billion years since they radiated the light we’re seeing.

So of course our picture of the universe is incomplete. We live in a fortunate time, cosmologically speaking, because the expansion of the universe hasn’t progressed to the point where all galaxies are out of sight of each other, or else we might not know there are other galaxies at all. As it is, we are constantly revising our estimates (and estimates they certainly are) about the contents of the universe based on the information we can gather. Right now the estimate for the proportion of stars with planets around them is rocketing upward as we find evidence of more and more extra-solar planets. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.

I think you misunderstand one significant thing. Our model of the present universe is not an extrapolation from an assumption of the Big Bang; rather our concept of the Big Bang itself is largely an extrapolation from the current state and movement of the universe. Put simply, everything is rushing away from everything else (unless held together by local gravity) so in the past everything was closer, further in the past everything was even closer than that…and at some point beforehand everything was together, and the physicists worked from there. We try to model the current universe based as much as possible on real observations of its present state, rather than extrapolating from an extrapolation – though sometimes we do resort to that.

Feel free to pick up on any of these points in a comment if you think it could be clearer.

If this is the best apologetics Islam has to offer…

Question from Abu (“Muslim until death”, as he wrote in the name field):
I always feel pity for the stubbornness (to believe in Allah/God/Elohim/Ubangiji) of/by Atheists.

Thus I have a lot of questions to harden your brain (and if Allah wills for you goodness; you may take heed).

1) First of all: Why do you deny the existence of Allah [the Almighty God] ?

2) Second of all: Do you go with your life (here I purposely mean) for breathing, able to motionize, able to so likes of ?

3) Third of all: Do you think that everything goes freely by its power of nature ?

4) Fourth of all: If you think that Allah doesn’t exist, how all things came to existence ?

5) Fifth of last: I do argue to prepare for yourselves the last destination, there is a world to come after this, don’t let yourself be loser in Hereafter.

Bye !

Answer by SmartLX:
Interesting idea for you while I’m answering these: if none of the preaching has any effect on me, does that mean Allah wills me to reject him? The Bible talks about God hardening people’s hearts so that they’ll reject him; maybe some people just aren’t meant to be saved.

1) I deny that Allah exists (or at least I say that it seems very unlikely) because I do not believe that Allah exists, and I have decided to be honest about it. Even a genuine lack of belief is difficult for some believers to accept. Sorry folks, but there are people who truly disagree with you.

2) This one was honestly difficult to interpret, so tell me if I’m on the wrong track. I don’t think I need help to breathe, move and so on because there are mechanisms in my body which make these things happen for me. Even if Allah is real he doesn’t necessarily have to run everything manually.

3) I think everything obeys natural laws, only some of which we understand well enough to predict behaviour. An interventionist god like Allah would influence our lives by violating these laws, and I don’t think there’s good evidence that this is happening.

4) I don’t know how everything came to exist. To say that this lack of knowledge supports an assertion that a being with an equally mysterious origin must exist is an argument from ignorance. (It’s no accident that this is the most common hyperlink on this site besides the one for my Twitter.)

5) This is not a question.

Might Be Talking To The Wrong Guy

Question from Jesse:
Where did the gravity come from Mr Hawkins? I’m just curious.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m going to assume this is a question to Stephen Hawking by proxy. It’s the right question as it turns out, as Hawking’s position in A Brief History of Time is that gravity essentially caused the universe. As for its own origin, notwithstanding the limitations of language when describing different workings of time, it was always there, just as you might assume God always was.

If you have a problem with this I suggest you read A Brief History of Time, check any articles which might indicate that Hawking has changed his position since 1988, and address any further correspondence to him.

Life, Oh Life, Ooohhh Liiiiife, Oh Life…(doo doo doo doo)

Question from Madnomas:
I just read your response to the question regarding biogenesis. While you gave the only answer you could have, it is severely lacking. To claim that it “is unlikely that the conditions could have been right at least once in the distant past” (paraphrasing) is a gross over reach. If abiogenesis were “not unlikely,” one would presumably be able to predict that the more we learn about the earliest life forms, the less complex these forms would appear, and the more likely the conditions that might be able to generate life would what we’ve found. However, it is exactly the opposite. Even the earliest life is infinitely complex. Not only is life extremely complex but has as its foundation, information. So, as we discover more about early life and the conditions surrounding the early atmosphere, it has only become more improbable, but without mutation and selection to fall back, we have to account for the appearance of information. So instead of casually brush off this extremely potent evidence for a creator, as understandably would for convenience, this is still a monumental challenge for atheism to address. Unfortunately, it’s only becoming more improbable with each new discovery.

Answer by SmartLX:
There is no physical or chemical barrier to an increase in the amount of information on Earth as long as we have the Sun, even before the emergence of life. I’ve explained this briefly here.

The first life was complex but it was less complex than much of modern life, unless you think human beings are no more complex than bacteria. And the Miller-Urey experiment gets a lot of flak but it proved beyond doubt that the introduction of electricity (via lightning) can produce amino acids, so inorganic processes do important work and therefore not all of the complexity had to pop up at once.

Not knowing how something happened is not an argument that it didn’t happen, except for an argument from ignorance. Eliminating every possible method might be evidence for same, but that clearly hasn’t happened as long as there are potentially viable models, and in this case there are lots. And the proposed alternative requires that we assume the presence and participation for an entity not only for which there is no evidence, but about which nothing is agreed upon even hypothetically. It would be much stronger to establish the existence of God without the requirement of faith and then argue that God created life than to support God with apparent creation.

The Beginning Ain’t the Be-All and End-All

Question from John:
Universe had a beginning, “proved” by second law of thermodynamics.
Dear Sir, I understand that an argument used by creationists, in favour of a Universe that had a beginning, is that the second law of thermodynamics requires that it will inevitably wind down. In essence, the claim is that the universe can not have been infinite into the past as it would have inevitably already run down. The fact of a purported finite amount of usable energy therefore implies that the universe MUST have had a beginning or else we would not be here now to discuss this. Is there a scientific rebuttal to this claim please?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are two principal possibilities which address the idea of an infinite universe having run down by now, both of which are centered around the concept of renewal.

1. The universe periodically contracts in a Big Crunch before a new Big Bang. This drags together not only all the matter in the universe but all the space and time as well. All the unusable energy lost to the edges of the universe is brought back to the singularity and can be useful once again.
2. The matter and energy in the hypothetical (but currently quite likely-looking) multiverse is infinite. When one universe runs down, countless others are still going and more universes spontaneously start up all the time. No laws of physics are broken by this sudden emergence if the amount of anti-matter that emerges is equal to the amount of matter, because matter and energy are conserved in an equation akin to 0 = 1 + -1.

Creationists often think, as they are told to by people like William Lane Craig, that once they establish that the universe had a beginning the argument is basically sewn up. Even if the above two possibilities are dismissed and you take it as read that the universe began, that it was begun by a god can only ever be an argument from ignorance. Without knowing how it happened, you can’t just assert it was one particular thing without eliminating all other possibilities, even the ones people haven’t thought of yet. The potential for spontaneous emergence from the “quantum foam” suggested by quantum mechanics, for one, ensures for the moment that well-formulated alternatives are out there, and you don’t even have to appeal to the un-thought-of.

Adam and Eve, not Ug and Eev!

Question from Dontay:
Evidence of dinosaurs has been found…museums show that cavemen existed…. But… How can cavemen be real if Adam and Eve are supposedly the first people on earth?

Answer by SmartLX:
If by “cavemen” you simply mean people who lived in caves and hunted and gathered for a living, then perhaps Adam and Eve’s immediate descendants did that once the garden of Eden was closed to them. The timing doesn’t work out at all when you count the supposed 34 generations from the Biblical Adam to the Biblical and historical King David and compare them to the scientifically estimated dates of the cavemen’s remains, but people who are motivated to prop up the story of Genesis will accept it anyway.

If on the other hand you mean Neanderthals and other departed species within the genus Homo, there you have a conflict which is less easily dismissed. The story goes that God not only made Man more or less in his present form (or a super-version that was huge and could live for centuries) but He made Man in his own image, which is poorly defined but usually taken to mean an image of perfection. “Lesser” or more primitive versions of Man don’t jibe with this idea at all. That’s why creationist explanations of the evidence simply assert that they were all just modern-type humans with primitive lifestyles.

As for dinosaurs, all evidence points to the fact that the last ones were dead millions of years before the first humans were born. Not so for most creationists; rather than deny they existed, many of them say dinosaurs were present on the Ark, and they’re depicted as such at the new Ark Encounter park in Kentucky. Any evidence or argument that so much as requires the expression “millions of years” is explicitly demonised.