Saturday, November 15, 2014

Accepting Evolution

Although the theory of evolution doesn't really have anything to do with Atheism, per se,  it often comes up in discussions with theists who apparently feel threatened by something which can so fully explain observable phenomena that theists have been claiming for centuries could only be explained by the existence of a divine creator.  Before the theory of evolution was proposed (and, eventually, accepted), there just wasn't any good way to explain the immense diversity of life on earth and the way it is all so interconnected.  Of course, claiming that God "must" have done it since we can't think of any other explanation is a classic argument from ignorance, but the fact remained that there were no other decent explanations for a long time.  With the theory of evolution, however, you no longer need God to explain everything, and this has led some theists to attempt to undermine its acceptance at every opportunity.  Not all theist, mind you -- the Catholic Church, for example, officially recognizes the science behind the theory of evolution and "merely" claims that God directed the process and at some point in that process injected the human soul into the mix.

Somebody once me asked whether it was possible to come up with grand unifying analogy or quote to fully explain the theory of evolution and make it more understandable and accepted by whose who deny it. Unfortunately, while analogies may be useful in understanding the general concepts underlying evolution, I don't think they are much use when it comes to actually accepting the truth of evolution. And this is the case with most fields of science that attempt to explain things that are not, and cannot, be perceived directly and which may even appear to contradict our everyday experiences.

Relativity is truly weird, especially when you talk about curved space/time. Sure, comparing space/time to a rubber sheet and massive objects to a bowling ball rolling along that sheet may help me understand the general idea that somebody is talking about, but at the end of the day it doesn't really help me to understand what space/time really is or accept that it can be somehow distorted by massive objects. That will only come by learning a lot of complex mathematics and performing (or at least studying) tons of experiments.  And if I insisted that all theories that describe reality must comport with my "common sense" view of the world, I would never be able to accept the validity of relativity, despite the fact that it is widely accepted among physicists and is actually used on a daily basis for such things as making adjustments to GPS satellites that are further away from the Earth's gravitational pull and therefore run at a slightly different speed than clocks on earth.  Seriously weird stuff, but also seriously true.

Quantum mechanics is even worse. It has been said that nobody truly understands it, and yet its principals have been borne out by experimentation and physicists can make accurate predictions based on the various laws that have been discovered regarding it.  Of course, the world we can observe with our eyes and ears does not operate on the quantum level, and once again my "common sense" experiences are not a reliable means of judging the validity of quantum mechanics.

Like relativity and quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution describes reality as it occurs on a scale not generally observable by our standard senses.  In the case of evolution, the scale has to do with time rather than size or speed or distance.  And, just like relativity and quantum mechanics, we cannot rely on our own "common sense" experiences as a guide to determining whether or not it is an accurate description of reality.  Once again, however, just like the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution provides an explanation as to why the universe behaves the way it does and also lets us make falsifiable predictions as to what will happen in the future.

[As a side note here, let me point out that the word "theory," when used in a scientific sense (like the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity), does not mean an unverified guess or idea.  In scientific terms, that would be a "hypothesis".  Instead, the word "theory" is used to describe a system of interrelated laws and principles that have been tested, validated and confirmed and that are used to describe a particular area of  observed reality.  In other words, you don't get to call something a "theory" in science unless it has been proven to be be true.]

To understand evolution, all you really need to know (and I hope I'm getting this right) is that (a) small, random changes are occurring all the time within all biological organisms due to such things as random cosmic ray bombardment, (b) the environment in which most organisms live is constantly changing as well (either due to a change in the environment itself or because the organisms have moved to a different environment), and (c) these two factors frequently combine so that some members of any given species find themselves better suited to the current environment (and thereby survive to pass on their genes to future generations) while other members of that species find themselves less suited (and thereby do not survive to pass on their genes to future generations). Add to that a time span of billions of years for small changes to accumulate, et voila!

The best analogy I have read to help me accept the truth of the theory evolution is the one described in Dawkin's "Climbing Mount Improbable." It doesn't lend itself to a pithy quote, unfortunately, but the general analogy compares the evolution of, say, mammals from their ancient fish-like ancestors to a sheer-faced cliff hundreds (thousands?) of feet high. To somebody standing at the base of the cliff, the very thought of leaping to the top in a single bound is impossible to consider, just like it may be impossible to imagine a fish turning into a mouse. But, the analogy continues, what if you could look at the other side of the cliff and see a gradual slope extending for tens (or even hundreds) of miles in the distance, leading from sea level all the way to the cliff's edge? If you started a journey from the very beginning of the slope, the incline would be so gradual that at no point in your journey would you ever even notice you were rising. You could travel for days, weeks, months and still appear to be traveling on perfectly level ground. And yet, at the end of your journey you would eventually find yourself thousands of feet in the air despite never having made any perceptible leaps whatsoever.  Replace "hundreds of miles" in the cliff analogy with "billions of years" in the theory of evolution, and the analogy is complete. The analogy only works, however, if you fully understand the processes involved with evolution in the first place.

Hopefully, this analogy  provides with a framework to understand how evolution is even possible, similar to how the bowling ball on a rubber sheet analogy might help somebody understand the concept of warped space.  It's not an exact analogy, but it should help (assuming, of course, that somebody actually wants to understand how evolution could possibly be true instead of just rejecting it out of hand).  Having said that, let me just address a few of the most common criticisms I have seen and heard lobbed at evolution by those who clearly do not understand how it could be possible:
  • If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes around today?  This is an easy one to answer -- humans did not evolve from apes!  At least, not from the apes that are around today.  Instead, humans and apes both evolved from a common ancestor species millions of years ago and we turned out different from modern apes because we moved to different locations than they did, encountered different challenges than they did, faced different environments over time, etc. It's sort of like asking, "If the English language evolved from Germanic roots, why are there still German speaking people today?"

  • If evolution is true, why don't we ever find any "transitional" fossils that are clearly in between two other species?  The answer to this is that scientists have actually found many different transitional fossils, especially in recent years.  Numerous fossils have been found in the fossil record that show some characteristics of fossils found earlier in the fossil record and some characteristics of fossils found later in the fossil record.  The problem is that some people either are not aware of these discoveries (willful ignorance, perhaps) or require impossible standards for "transitional" like a fossil that is half duck and half crocodile, despite the fact that the theory of evolution clearly states that evolution is a gradual process with no sudden leaps from one species to a wholly unrelated species on in a single generation.  No duck ever gave birth to an animal that wasn't a duck, but over millions of years what is a duck now may be quite different from what was a duck back then.

  • If evolution is true, that means we are just animals and therefore have no reason to act morally toward one another.  Well, aside from the fact that this is basically arguing from the consequences (a logical fallacy where you try to disprove something simply by pointing out the possible negative consequences of that thing), I would have to take exception at the "just" part of this criticism.  True, evolution means that humans are animals, but why do we have to be "just" animals?  A dolphin is not "just" an animal -- it is an animal with a highly specialized, perhaps unique, ability to navigate underwater using sound.  An eagle is not "just" an animal -- it's an animal with exceedingly keen vision and the ability to soar through the sky.  And man is not "just" an animal, either -- he (or she) is an animal with a highly developed intelligence and moral sense that has evolved over time to help us better survive in our environment.  The fact that we are animals doesn't mean we can't be different from other animals in significant ways, and it certainly doesn't mean that we have to act like other animals any more than you would expect an eagle to act like a dolphin (or to act like a penguin, for that matter).

  • Evolution is just a "theory" that Darwin made up and scientists have blindly put their faith in it ever since!  Actually, no.  As mentioned above, the scientific use of the word "theory" (as in the "theory of gravity" and the "theory of relativity") used to describe a system of interrelated laws and principles that have been tested, validated and confirmed and that are used to describe a particular area of  observed reality.  Darwin (and others like him) may have first proposed the idea of evolution, but it didn't become a scientific "theory" until it had been thoroughly tested, revised, expanded upon, and confirmed by generations of scientists looking at many different fields for corroboration.

  • The odds of a complex organism like a human arising purely by "chance" are as ridiculous as a tornado whipping through a junkyard and assembling a complete, working jumbo jet airplane purely by chance! You're right, that would be rather ridiculous. But the theory of evolution doesn't actually state that everything happened purely by chance. Yes, it requires chance mutations to occur and accumulate over time, but that's just an ingredient in the recipe and not the recipe itself. The actual process of evolution is driven by the pressure of natural selection. It may be chance when one animal develops more hair than another member of the same species, but it's not chance when that hairier animal survives when the climate gets colder and the less hairier animal doesn't.

  • Evolution can't explain how life got started in the first place.  You are right, it can't.  But, then again, neither can the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity.  And that's because none of those theories actually claim to answer that question and their validity therefore does not rest on whether they can answer it or not.  There is a completely separate field of biology called Abiogenesis that does try to come up with theories to explain how life could first arise (whether from inanimate matter or some other way, such as having been carried to Earth on a comet).  Evolution, on the other hand, starts with the assumption that life exists and then explains how it became so diverse.

  • But, what about [insert anomaly mentioned exclusively on creationist websites that seemingly "disproves" some tangentially related principal]?  I don't have room to mention every single thing that creationists have come up with over the years in an attempt to "disprove" evolution.  The important thing to remember, however, is that not only does evolution stand as the best explanation ever devised for every bit of observed biological phenomena, and not only has it shown again and again that it has strong predictive powers, it is also corroborated by many other branches of science.  If the theory of evolution were just based on the observed fossil record, then maybe attacking the validity of the fossil record could be an attack on the theory itself.  Instead, though, the theory of evolution is based on corroborating observations from the fossil record, from the genetic analysis of living species, from field examinations of species evolving in the wild, etc.

  • But, there's no actual proof of evolution!  Oh, go read a book.  Preferably one written by an actual scientist with a degree from a real university with a degree in a field actually related to the study of evolution.  That is, of course, if you actually want to learn all about the proof instead of just repeating what others have told you. Creationists have been shouting "there's no proof of evolution" for over a hundred years, ignoring or dismissing every single bit of evidence that comes along, as if simply stating that something isn't true will somehow make it not true. Or, in other words, yes there is actual proof of the theory of evolution. Lots of proof. So much proof that it could (and actually does) fill entire libraries. You just have to be willing to look at it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Problem of Evil

One of the most compelling arguments against the existence of God (or, at least, the sort of all powerful, all knowing and all benevolent God worshiped by most religions) is the so-called “Problem of Evil”.  Stated simply, it asks how a God who is supposed to be an all knowing, all powerful and all loving being could allow so much suffering to occur.  The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
There seem to be two standard responses to this argument that are made by theists, each of which I will address below:
  1. God gave mankind free will, and if one person wants to do harm to another person then God cannot prevent that from happening without taking away that free will.  In other words, God could prevent suffering, but that would cause something even worse to occur (the loss of our free will).
  2. Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden caused the entire world to become a cursed place, full of pain and suffering.  The “fall” from God’s grace affected all of creation, and all of creation therefore suffers as a result of man’s sin.
The first response to the problem of evil is actually a fairly persuasive argument for why God permits suffering that is actually caused by other people (or even caused by people themselves).  Yes, free will is a wonderful thing and it would be pretty bad if we were all just a bunch of mindless robots forced to act the way God wants us to act.

However, this argument says precisely nothing about why people suffer as the result of natural causes such as diseases, famine, blizzards, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., none of which are the result of man’s exercising his free will.  OK, sure, I suppose an argument could be made that some of what we call “natural causes” do, in fact, have some basis in man’s exercise of free will.  Perhaps you could argue that some people get lung cancer, say, because of the choice they made to smoke cigarettes.  Or that some people needlessly die in hurricanes because we as a species have largely chosen to ignore the evidence of anthropogenic climate change.  I would argue, however, that those cases are few and far between when compared with all the other forms of suffering that clearly have nothing to do with our free will, unless you want to get completely reductive and claim that, since person X chose to live in a part of the world where tornadoes occasionally happen, it’s his fault that he (and his family, of course) are later killed by a tornado.

Moreover, this free will argument does not address why there is so much suffering in the rest of the world.  Sure, you can blame man’s free will for some of the suffering (deforestation, pollution, etc.), but man’s free will can’t be blamed for the fact that the majority of animal life either need to feed on other animals in order to survive or get eaten by other animals.  It doesn’t explain why animals also get painful, debilitating diseases.  It doesn’t explain why there are species of wasps that lay their eggs in the bodies of living creatures that die a slow and agonizing death as the wasp larvae hatch and eat their way out.

So, yeah – free will is important and can explain man’s inhumanity to man.  Aside from that, though, it’s not a particularly compelling argument.

The second response to the problem of evil has many flaws, but the primary one in my opinion is that it apparently takes away God’s free will and/or renders him powerless.  It’s basically saying that God didn’t want all of creation to suffer but had no choice due to Adam’s transgression.  Really?  He had no choice?  Let’s think about that for a minute, shall we?  If God is all powerful, surely he could have come up with a way to punish Adam (and all of his descendants) without punishing every other living thing on the planet (and perhaps even the universe).  Either God had no choice in the matter, in which case he is not all powerful after all, or else he chose to inflict as much suffering as possible on all of his creation, in which case he is not all loving.

I suppose one could argue that God really only cares about humans and just isn’t concerned with the suffering of lesser creatures who (presumably) have no souls and just exist to make the world a more colorful place.  That doesn’t seem to match the biblical description of God as a being who cares about a single sparrow falling to the ground.

Again, this argument assumes that it’s man’s fault that the world fell from grace into a state of suffering, but that’s only valid if you also assume that God was powerless or unwilling to prevent it from happening, or at least from happening in the way that it did.  If God really wanted to punish man for Adam’s sin (and I’ll leave the morality of punishing people for a sin committed by a distant ancestor for another post), wouldn’t it have been more effective to make man suffer and die while simultaneously leaving the rest of creation in an Edenic state as a constant reminder of what was lost?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Scientific Method vs Theism

As an atheist, I have come to appreciate the scientific method as the best – if not only – way to determine truth. The basic principles of the scientific method are (a) observing a phenomenon, (b) coming up with a hypothesis to explain that phenomenon, (c) performing experiments and/or gathering data to support that hypothesis and (d) refine the hypothesis to fit the experiments and data (or even reject the hypothesis entirely if the experiments and data disprove it). The key point is that the hypothesis needs to match the evidence and not the other way around.

When I was a theist, however, I was taught to start with an acceptance that God existed, the scriptures were true, etc., and then look for evidence to support that belief if necessary. This is superficially similar to the scientific method (and many theists claim that they in fact follow the scientific method), with one key distinction. Whenever data is discovered that fails to support (or even contradicts) the belief in God, the data needs to be tweaked (or sometimes outright ignored). If, for example, geological evidence clearly shows that the Grand Canyon was created via slow processes over millions of years and this data contradicts the notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old, it’s important to selectively ignore the evidence until you can explain the remaining evidence as having been produced by a global flood.

Proponents of “Creation Science” (a.k.a. Intelligent Design”) often point to, say, the perfection of the human eye as proof that it must have been the product of a divine, perfect creator. The eye, the argument goes, is just too complicated and works so well that it couldn’t possibly have happened just by chance. Ignoring for the moment the fact that this is really just an argument from ignorance (“the eye is just too complicated and works so well that I personally can’t understand how it could possibly have happened just by chance”), and also ignoring for the moment that the Theory of Evolution explicitly posits the concept of natural selection as the driving force behind the development of complex structures such as the eye instead of chance, this argument does have the superficial appearance of following the principles of the scientific method. The phenomenon of a complicated, perfectly functioning eye is observed, and the existence of a divine, perfect creator is offered as a theory to explain that phenomena.

Where things go off the rails, however, is when you point out that the eye is not, in fact, perfect. The human eye has a blind spot inherent in its design, which is perfectly explainable when you consider how the eye might have developed over millions of years but doesn’t make much sense for a perfect creator to have done it that way. In addition, human eyes are susceptible to all sorts of abnormalities and diseases, and many people have to resort to corrective lenses or surgery in order to see clearly. In fact, many people are actually born completely blind. Under the scientific method, evidence that contradicts a particular theory causes the theory to be refined or rejected. Under “Creation Science”, however, the response is typically that we live in a fallen state due to the sins of Adam and that is why the eye is currently not perfect (or why people get diseases or why animals feed off each other or why there is so much pain and suffering in all aspects of the natural world, etc.). And this is because, rather than truly following the scientific method to fit the theory to the facts, theists start with a set of assumed “truths” (i.e., that God exists, that He created the universe in a perfect state originally and that we now live in a fallen universe due to the sins of Adam) and then look for any observable facts that support those “truths” while rejecting any that don’t support them.

If perfection of design proves the existence of a perfect creator, imperfection of design can’t somehow also prove the existence of the same perfect creator.  Looking just at the observed phenomena, without any preconceived, unchallenged assumptions as to the existence and nature of God (which is, of course, the very thing that is supposed to be proved so it can't be assumed), imperfection of design is instead evidence of an imperfect creator, or perhaps a malevolent creator, or of no creator whatsoever.  The one thing it absolutely cannot be is evidence of a perfect creator, unless you already believe in the God of the Bible and are simply looking for a justification of that belief instead of actually trying to come up with a theory that best explains the evidence.

People are, of course, free to believe whatever they choose to believe, and the whole reason churches exist is to let people with similar beliefs congregate and share those beliefs with one another. And there’s nothing wrong with that (assuming, of course, those beliefs don’t lead the believers to harm other people as a result). But this essential difference between the scientific method and theism is one of the main reasons why “Creation Science” or “Intelligent Design” has no place whatsoever in a science classroom. Call it what you will, it just isn’t scientific as long as it exists to fit the facts to the theory instead of the other way around.