Friday, December 18, 2015

The "Theory" of Evolution

I've lost count of how many times I've heard or seen fundamentalist theists (whether Christian or Muslim) disparage the entire concept of evolution by saying, "it's just a theory."  As in, "Scientists claim that man evolved from apes, but the Theory of Evolution is just that -- a theory!  It's nothing more than a guess!"  I've also lost count of how many times I have heard or seen people (whether atheists or just rational theists) respond to this claim, but the responses always seem to be one of two different approaches.  Some people go with a glib response to the tune of, "Evolution is 'just' a theory the same way gravity is 'just' a theory!"  Others point out that the word "theory" has a different meaning when used in a scientific context than it does when used colloquially.  In other words, while theory can certainly mean "simply a guess or conjecture" when used colloquially, when scientists use the term they mean "a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena."

Neither of these two standard responses are particularly helpful, in my opinion.  The first suffers simply because it is glib, and doesn't really offer enough information to change anybody's mind on the subject.  Glib responses, in my experience, are best suited to making the person making the response feel superior, but don't typically have much affect on the respondent.  The second response, while informative and accurate, suffers because it completely misses the entire point.  It doesn't really matter if "theory" is defined to mean that it's not "just" a guess but is instead supported by evidence and generally accepted as true.  That still lets fundamentalists claim that it doesn't have to be true.  "After all," they might argue, "for centuries it was generally accepted by scientists that the earth was flat, or that the sun revolved around the earth, or that everything was made up of earth, air, fire and water."

No, I think the best response to the whole "it's just a theory" argument is to point out what the Theory of Evolution actually is, not what the word "theory" means.  And no, I don't mean explain all the details of the theory and point out all the evidence that supports it (although that can certainly be helpful if you have the scientific background to pull it off).  I'm talking about something a lot more basic which always seems to get missed in these discussions.  It is important to explain that the Theory of Evolution is not the proposition that there is such a thing as evolution in the first place, that all currently existing species (including man) have evolved from previously existing species, and that all life on earth shares a common ancestor who lived billions of years ago.  Instead, the Theory of Evolution is the proposition to explain how and why all of that took place.

Evolution, in other words, is an observable, demonstrable fact and not a theory at all!  The Theory of Evolution is our best explanation (supported by evidence and commonly accepted as accurate) as to what caused (and still causes) that fact.  And just because our best explanation might be incomplete or inaccurate or just flat-out wrong doesn't say anything about whether scientists are at all unsure as to whether evolution is a real thing.  This is similar to how the "Theory of Gravity" does not seek to explain whether or not there is gravity, but instead seeks to explain why there is gravity and how it works.

Evolution is an observable and demonstrable fact, plain and simple.  We have a multitude of evidence from various sources, such as the fossil record, comparative anatomy, DNA analysis, etc., that shows unequivocally that all life on earth has evolved from prior life forms over time and that all living creatures shared common ancestors in the past.  Evolution itself is not a theory -- it's simply an observation.  The Theory or Evolution deals with how and why evolution occurred, and the commonly accepted explanation is that evolution is caused by the occurrence of random mutations within a population that gives rise to variety, and that changes in environment cause different variations within the population to either thrive or perish, which over vast time scales can lead to entirely new species, genera, orders, classes, phyla and even kingdoms.

Whether this theory is wholly accurate and complete can certainly be discussed.  It is, after all, "just" a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction.  Maybe there are additional factors at work that we haven't figured out yet.  Maybe some of the factors we currently believe to be involved aren't as important as we think.  Maybe we've got it completely wrong and there is a totally different explanation for how evolution has occurred (and is still occurring).  Maybe that explanation is even "God did it" (or "aliens did it" or "magic pixies did it").  But none of that uncertainty changes the fact that evolution has occurred and continues to occur.

Evolution is a fact.  The explanation as to how it works is a theory.  A very good, commonly accepted theory that can be and has been used as principles of explanation and prediction, but a theory nonetheless.  And this, I believe, is the best response to the whole "evolution is just a theory" argument.  No, the "Theory of Evolution" is a theory, but evolution itself is an an accepted, observable, demonstrable fact.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Cosmological Argument

They say there is nothing new under the sun, and that may very well be true.  As I watch various apologists try to justify their belief in God (whether it be the God of Christendom, Allah, or some other version of God), most of them at some point fall back on some form of the so-called "Cosmological" argument that has actually been around for quite a long time and has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy (despite the fact that, as far as I am aware, the God that Aristotle was trying to prove was neither the Christian nor the Muslim God).

Some modern apologists go to great lengths to add numerous subtle nuances to the argument to patch its obvious flaws, but the basic formation of the argument has been codified as the "Kalām Cosmological Argument" (KCA) that reads as follows:
  1.  Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
On its face, this is a perfectly valid argument in the sense that the conclusion logically follows from its premises.  There are, however, some serious problems with the argument that basically render it useless on its face.

A Valid Argument Is Not the Same as a Sound Argument

As stated above, a "valid" argument is one which the conclusion logically follows from the stated premises.  However, in order to be at all useful, an argument must also be "sound."  In order to be sound, the conclusion must not only logically follow from the premises, the premises themselves must also be actually true.

For example, the following is a perfectly valid argument that is completely unsound:
  1. All elephants can fly
  2. Dumbo is an elephant
  3. Therefore, Dumbo can fly
This argument is unsound for a variety of reasons, namely that the first premise is not actually true and the second premise refers to a fictional character that doesn't actually exist.  Therefore, this argument is completely useless as an attempt to prove that Dumbo can fly, regardless of whether or not Dumbo really exists and can, in fact, fly. In other words, an unsound argument doesn't necessarily mean the conclusion is false, but it simply isn't useful in proving that conclusion.

Another example, perhaps a bit closer to the KCA, would be as follows:
  1. All swans have white feathers
  2. Black swans are swans
  3. Therefore, black swans have white feathers
Again, the problem with this argument is with the first premise.  What makes this argument a bit more subtle than the Dumbo example, however, is the fact that most swans do, in fact, have white feathers.  It's even possible that, before the discovery of the black swan in Australia, every species of swan ever encountered did, in fact, have white feathers.  But there's a huge difference between saying "All swans have white feathers" and saying "All swans that we are currently aware of have white feathers."  Not understanding that empirical evidence is not the same as absolute truth could therefore lead somebody to follow up by claiming that, since black swans must (according to the argument) have white feathers, it must be the case that black swans have a special kind of magical white feathers that just appear black to our eyes instead of just acknowledging that the argument is flawed.

Keeping that in mind, let's take another look at the KCA, but with a few annotations added in:
  1. [Based on our limited empirical experience,] whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
  2. The universe began to exist [depending on your definition of "universe" and assumed to be true because humans aren't comfortable with the idea of an infinite regress].
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause [unless, of course, the universe is a special case of something that began to exist without having a cause, or unless the universe didn't actually have a true beginning as would be the case if it were part of a multi-verse or in an eternal cycle of expansion and contraction].
The first premise is based on empirical evidence of how things we currently observe behave, but isn't necessarily true for all cases everywhere. Perhaps the universe is the exception to this general rule (after all, we have never observed a universe come into being before, so we can't know whether it follows the same rules as everything else within that universe that we have observed).  Perhaps things come into being by themselves all the time, but just not where we can observe it (or where we have yet observed it).  Or perhaps the entire premise is just flat out wrong and, as physicist Lawrence Krauss describes in his book, "A Universe from Nothing," particles routinely do pop in and out of existence all around us all the time.  Either way, there's simply no justification to accept as absolute the premise that whatever begins to exist has a cause.  It may seem to be common sense and may seem to be based on our experience with the natural world, but that doesn't make it necessarily true by any stretch of the imagination.

[As an aside, it's interesting to note that early formations of the Cosmological Argument simply had "Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.  The big "breakthrough" of the KCA was adding "that begins to exist" to get around the obvious observation that God, as a being who exists, would also necessarily need a cause of his existence.  All we have to do then is magically redefine God as a being who never had a beginning (or "exists outside of time and space") and voila! Problem supposedly solved.  Except, not really.  More on this later...]

As for the second premise, the Bible states that God created the universe out of nothing. That's not what science says, however. The Big Bang theory doesn't explain how the universe was created but simply describes the expansion of the known universe from an seemingly infinitely dense and infinitely small singularity that presumably contained within itself all matter and energy. Where did that singularity come from and what caused it to expand? Nobody knows, but there are numerous theories that do not require any sort of intelligent causation.

Now, some modern apologists try to finesse the argument here by claiming that the universe must have had a beginning since the concept of an "actual" infinity (as opposed to, I assume, the "virtual" infinities that are used in and even required by various disciplines of mathematics and physics) is "metaphysically" impossible.  And by "metaphysically" impossible, these apologists basically mean that the concept makes no sense to them.  OK, so maybe I'm oversimplifying their view a wee bit, but their arguments against "actual" infinities rely on discussions of logical contradictions such as how an infinite amount divided in half would produce two infinite amounts.  And they then claim that this supposed impossibility of an "actual" infinity means that there must have been a beginning to everything at some point, even if you assume the universe is cyclical or budded off from a pre-existing multiverse.

Since the first two premises are not necessarily true, the conclusion is not justified.   The premises could possibly be true, but there's nothing that requires them to be true, and therefore the argument fails on its face as an unsound argument.  Again, this doesn't prove that the conclusion is false, only that this argument doesn't prove it to be true.

What if the Conclusion Is True?

OK, so the cosmological argument isn't sound and therefore the conclusion that the universe had a cause isn't necessarily true.  But it could still be true, right?  And perhaps, some would argue, it's extremely probable even if not necessarily true.

So let's go there and assume for the sake of argument that the conclusion is actually true and there actually was a cause to the universe (either our current universe or the theoretical cyclical universe or multiverse).  So what?  Even if we accept that the universe somehow had some sort of "cause," we still don't know anything about what that cause was. Could the universe be its own cause (again, we've never observed a universe come into being before, so we can't say what the rules are for universe creation)?  Why does it have to be an intelligent being (lot's of things happen by random chance, so why do we insist that the creation of the universe must have been done on purpose)?

Some apologists start with the conclusion that the universe must have had a "cause" of some sort and try to make all sorts of inferences as to what this cause must be like.  For example, since whatever caused space and time to exist in the first place can't possibly exist in space or time itself, this cause must therefore be somehow timeless (a.k.a "eternal") and immaterial.  Gee, they then claim, this sounds an awful like the God of [insert pet religion here], since that God is described as being eternal and a being of pure mind.  Except... Well, first of all, there's no explanation given as to how something that is timeless and immaterial could actually have any interaction whatsoever with time and space.  It just did.  Second of all, God isn't actually described as a "pure mind" in any of the holy scriptures (in fact, he is described as a physical being who interacts with his creations).  Third, while God is described as being "eternal" in the holy books, that's not the same as "existing outside of time" or "timeless."  It just means he has existed forever and will exist forever, "forever" being a measurement of time and not a state outside of time.

These apologists will also argue that whatever caused the universe to exist must be an "agent" of some sort, meaning an intelligent being.  And this is supposedly because something had to choose to create the universe or else it would have stayed in it's uncreated state forever.  And only an intelligent being is capable of choosing.  Except... the whole concept of choosing implies the passage of time.  The whole concept of a being sitting around saying, "No universe yet, no universe yet, wait for it... NOW!" only makes sense if you're talking about a being that exists within time and not outside of it.  Besides, there's no logical requirement that something like the creation of the universe must be the result of choice in the first place.  If quantum theory teaches us anything at all, it's that sometimes things happen when they do out of sheer random chance.

Which brings us to the part where apologists really back themselves into a corner via a startling bit of circular logic.  If everything that begins to exist must have a cause and the universe must have had a beginning because actual infinities are metaphysically impossible, where did God come from?  As mentioned earlier, the original formulation of the Cosmological Argument stated that everything that exists must have a cause, but modern apologists changed that to everything that begins to exist must have a cause.  This provided them with a loophole to state that God is exempt from the first premise since he didn't actually have a beginning and therefore didn't need a cause to begin to exist.

Well, aside from the fact that this leads to all sort of mental wrangling described above whereby you have to claim that, in order to never have had a beginning, God must simultaneously be an immaterial being consisting of pure "mind" (whatever that means) existing outside of space and time and somehow be able to interact with space and time whenever he wants, it also ignores the second premise of the argument that claims that the universe must have had a beginning because an actual infinity is impossible.  If that is actually true, than it would also apply to God.  Claiming that God, being an infinite and eternal being, is the exception to the rule that actual infinities are impossible is just a case of special pleading and one would be equally justified claiming that the universe (or multiverse) is the exception to the rule and therefore there's no need for God.  In other words,  if the universe necessarily had a beginning then so did God, and no amount of making up claims out of whole cloth that God must be "timeless" can avoid that fact.  And remember -- the "timelessness" of God was not an something originally attributed to him in the scriptures, but was instead something ascribed to him as a way of dealing with the flaws in this argument.  God never claimed to exist outside of time, but assuming that he must do so is the only way this argument can possibly work.  Except that "timelessness" doesn't actually mean anything.  If an "actual infinity" is meaningless, the concept of "timelessness" is surely far, far worse.  Calling God timeless to patch up a flaw in the KCA is like making up the concept of magical white feathers in my black swan argument described above.  Sure, it makes the argument work, but it's ridiculous and self-contradictory on its face and is only required because you want to accept a false premise as true.

But let's go a step further and assume that somehow there is such a thing as an immaterial mind that is both "timeless" and "spaceless" and that such a concept is not just an obvious self-contradiction [Q: What do you call something that does not exist within space and time? A: Nothing].  And let's push accommodation to the very limits and assume that such a being could actually somehow interact with the physical universe, at least to the extent of creating it in the first place.  What justification is there to imagine that intelligent being just happens to be the God worshiped by your particular religion and not that of your neighbor?  One you've "proved" that the universe has a cause and that cause was some sort of intelligent being of some sort, how do you know it's your God?

My favorite part of watching people argue for the existence of their particular God using the Kalām Cosmological Argument is when they get to the end and are inevitably asked how they know that this "first cause" God is their particular God. And then you invariably get answers along the line of "Because Christ came to me and spoke to my heart" or "that's where faith comes in" or "the Koran is the most demonstrably true book ever written", etc.  In other words, every different religion that believes in a God can use the same argument to prove the existence of their particular version of God, and every different religion is convinced that their version of God is the correct one.  Which is to say, an argument that can be used to prove inherently contradictory conclusions is not a particularly useful argument:

In Conclusion...

 So, to sum up:
  1. The Cosmological Argument doesn't necessarily prove that the universe must have had any sort of "cause."
  2. Even if it the universe did have a cause, there's no justification to claim that that cause must be a conscious agent an trying to describe that cause as existing outside of space and time (since those terms have no actual meaning) or that it is "pure mind" (since we have no evidence that minds can exist apart from a physical brain) or that something that is outside of space and time could even possibly interact with matter and energy in the first place.  After all, when was the last time you were able to affect anything apart from your own body simply by willing it to happen with your mind?
  3. Finally, even if the universe did have a cause, and even if that cause could actually be said to be a timeless, immaterial being of pure mind, there's no justification to associate that being with the God of any particular religion, since it doesn't actually match the description of God from any religion's holy books and has, in fact, been equally associated to many different religions.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Geoffrey Paul Goldberg (1939-2015)

My father passed away yesterday morning.  I was vacationing with my wife and son when I got the call from my step-mother.  I can't say it was a huge shock, since he has been in generally poor health for awhile now and actually came very close to dying four or five years ago after suffering congestive heart failure and going into a coma for a week after being revived.  In fact, the doctors at the time said there was very little chance he would recover and that we should all gather to say our final goodbyes.  Which is to say I long ago reconciled myself to the fact of my father's mortality.  The fact that he managed to recover last time also meant I had plenty of time over the last four years to rebuild some bridges with him and develop a much better relationship with him that we had when I was younger.

Still, his actual passing was sudden since he wasn't in the hospital or anything like that.  In fact, I had just seen him the previous weekend and even talked to him on the phone the night before he died, just to chat.  So, yeah, I wasn't really prepared for him to be gone like that despite everything.

All my friends and family are sending their condolences, and many of them are including words of comfort assuring me that my dad is now in a better place, that he knows that I love him, and that I will see him again some day.  None of which, of course, I actually believe, being an atheist and all.  But I do appreciate the thought nonetheless and certainly don't begrudge other people for clinging to beliefs that give them comfort or wanting to comfort me in turn.

How does one make sense of a loved one's death without a belief in God or an afterlife of some sort?  Well, that part's pretty easy, I suppose.  Everything that is born eventually dies, whether it be a fish, a cat, a horse or a man.  It's all part of the natural order, and it would be awfully strange if people didn't die the way that everything else in nature does.  Humans are obviously special, in the sense that we have a very highly developed intellect and a sense of self that provides us with a sense of our own mortality.  But that knowledge does not exempt us from the natural order.  So we don't need a belief in God or an afterlife to understand why people die or even why they die suddenly or why bad things happen to good people (and vice versa).  It's just the way things are.

How does one deal with/accept/find comfort after a loved one's death without a belief in God or an afterlife of some sort?  Ah, that's a much harder question and is probably one of the main reasons why there have been and still are so many different religions in the world.  We don't want to let people go and can't bear the thought of never seeing them again, and therefore it's very comforting to think that death is only a temporary separation and that we will be reunited with out loved ones at a later time.  As with many things, however, wishing and believing doesn't make it so.

As an atheist, I don't believe there is any extrinsic purpose to our lives, only the purpose we choose to give ourselves.  From a purely biological standpoint, the purpose of all life is to live long enough to reproduce.  Since we are intelligent, self-aware creatures, however, we have the ability to choose a greater purpose than that.  We can choose to be good people and try to make the world around us a better place.  We can choose to teach our children to be good people. We can choose to gain as much knowledge as possible about the world around us and to pass on that knowledge to others.  We don't need a God or an afterlife to define our purpose.

For this reason, I take comfort in knowing that my dad lived his life according to his own terms.  He chose to make a difference in the lives of others, and that choice will continue to have ripples throughout time long after he is gone.  He will continue to live on in my memory and that of all the other lives he touched.  He will live on in the genes he passed on to me and my siblings, who will in turn pass along to our children.  I will certainly miss him and his absence leaves a void in my heart that may never go away.  But I don't need a belief in fairy tales in order to accept that he is gone and take joy in the memories that I have of him.

As an aside, I often wonder what people really expect when they say they will see a dead loved one again some day.  If there really were a heaven and my father were up there right now, what would he actually be like?  Would his mind be in the state it was just before he died, a lot more mellow and kinder than he was when younger, but not nearly a sharp as he once was?  Would he be the person he was 30 or 40 years ago, a lot more arrogant and perhaps less sympathetic?  We all change throughout our lives, and none of us are the same person that we were years before.  We all evolve and grow and change, and sometimes it's for the better and sometimes for the worse.  Which version of us would actually be up there in heaven?  Would it be a version other people would even recognize?  I'm guessing people really expect our "souls" to be some sort of idealized version of ourselves, with all the good points and none of the flaws, but it's the flaws that often make us who we are.  And some of the things that some people might consider to be flaws in us are perhaps seen as good points by others, and vice versa.

I'm sorry my dad is dead and I will miss him.  I take comfort in knowing that he lived a good life and that I had a chance to know him both as a child and as a fellow adult. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Why Do So Many People Believe in [a] God?

One argument I hear periodically is that, even if you can refute the claims of one particular religion, doesn't the fact that almost all cultures throughout human history have held a belief in some sort of god or gods mean something?  Couldn't this be evidence that there is, in fact, some sort of supernatural creative force "out there" and we all just perceive and interpret it in different ways?  If you want to get all scientific (and I always love when people invoke science to justify their non-scientific beliefs), doesn't it show that humans have evolved to believe in God and that it would only make sense if there were, in fact, a God to believe in?

Now, the easiest answer would, of course, be that it doesn't matter if a billion people believe something to be true if the thing is actually false, and humanity has collectively believed a lot of wrong ideas throughout history.  For untold thousands of years, people believed ("knew") that the sun went around the earth once a day, despite the fact that the earth actually revolves.  People believed that illnesses were caused by all matter of things (bad air, curses, etc.), despite the fact that they are actually caused by germs.  So yes, most cultures throughout recorded history have believed in some sort of supernatural creator, but (skipping the obvious problem that no two cultures could agree on what that creator actually was like) that doesn't really provide evidence that those beliefs are correct.

Having said that, however, I think the question does deserve a little more nuanced answer.  It's not enough to point out that people believe a lot of wrong things, since that doesn't mean that this particular belief is wrong (only that it could be wrong despite the fact that so many people have held it, or some form of it).  Instead, it would be helpful to provide an alternate explanation for why a belief in god or gods seems to be such an ingrained part of human nature.  Now, I'm not saying that I can conclusively provide the actual explanation, but I do at least have some thoughts as to one possible alternate explanation.  Someday I'll write a book on this subject and fill it with annotated footnotes to scientific studies and research, but for now I'm just going to go with a summation of things I have heard and read about, as well as my interpretation of what it all means.

Humans may not have evolved specifically to believe in God, but I think it's safe to say that our intellect and capacity to solve problems certainly evolved as a survival mechanism.  Rather than developing armored hides to protect ourselves from danger or razor-sharp claws to bring down prey, humans evolved the ability to anticipate danger to protect ourselves and to solve complex problems in order to figure out ways to obtain food.  When early man saw the tall grass swaying, especially in the absence of any evident wind, he realized it could still be caused by the wind but could also be caused by a predator stalking him.  If he assumed it's a predator and ran away, he lived to survive another day even if it really was the wind.  On, the other hand, if he assumed it was just the wind and it turned out to be a predator, well, he likely wouldn't live long enough to pass his genes to the next generation.  And thus, we evolved to see patterns even when they don't exist and to assume agency (i.e., that things are caused by mindful creatures) even when things happen by random chance.

Although this tendency to see patterns and assume agency was instrumental in allowing humans to survive and flourish throughout the millennia, it also brought along some baggage with it.  That's evolution for you.  Evolution allows species to adapt to changing environments and survive, but there's no guiding force to ensure that a particular adaptation is the "best" possible solution, only that it was better than other adaptations that did not enable a species to survive.  This is why we have eyes with built-in blind spots, appendices that serve no purpose and occasionally kill us by bursting and, sad to say, an intellect that assumes that every little bump in the night must be caused by some creature coming to eat us.

The problem is, of course, that our pattern-recognition skills are flawed.  Sure, they are good enough to help us survive, but they have also led us to see patterns where they don't exist and also ignore any evidence that contradicts the patterns we have convinced ourselves do exist.  If we, for example, see evidence of agency all around us, in the apparent design of the complex natural world or in stories of people being blessed after praying to one God or another, we are going to stick with our beliefs in those patterns even if the apparent natural design can be shown to have an alternate explanation or we hear stories about people who prayed and weren't blessed.  Psychologists call this "Confirmation Bias" and it simply means that, once we have made up our minds about something, we tend to accept any evidence supporting that belief and disregard (or ignore) any evidence that contradicts that belief.  And again, as a rough survival tool, confirmation bias served us well in the past.  The fact that 9 times out of 10 the swaying grass ended up just being caused by the wind doesn't matter if that 10th time ends up being a hungry predator, so it's better to just ignore the cases that don't fit the pattern and see the one case in your favor as proof that swaying grass means death is waiting to attack with sharp, nasty claws and fangs.

So, yeah.  Throughout history, human societies have tended to believe in one sort of supernatural force or another.  We don't know what that bright yellow thing in the sky is, but it moves and therefore must either be intelligent or else be pulled by something intelligent.  And when it hides for most of the day and things get cold, it must be because it is angry with us.  So we'd better pray to it and sacrifice things to it just in case.  And, sure enough, after a few months of prayers and sacrifices, winter comes to an end and spring returns proving we were right.  Except, we now know all about the rotation of the earth, the tilt of its axis and its yearly journey around the sun.  Does the fact that humans, in their ignorance, used to think the sun was a god and worshiped it accordingly really say anything about whether their is a god of some sort?  Or does it just speak to our ignorance and gullibility?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What Would It Take to Convince Me?

OK, so I've been watching more theist vs. atheist debates, and one question that often gets asked of both sides is "what would it take to convince you the other side was correct?" Typically, when the theists are asked what it would take to convince them that God doesn't really exist, the answer is that nothing could shake their belief in God. Which is, of course, rather telling, since it means that they admit their beliefs are neither based on evidence nor even rational to begin with, despite all their attempts to provide proof the existence of God.

Conversely, when the atheists are asked what would convince them of the existence of God, they usually start off by giving a snarky response along the lines of "a single shred of empirical evidence" and then say something like "if I looked up one night and all the stars had rearranged themselves to spell out a message saying, 'I am here.'"

Personally, however, I'm not sure a single bit of empirical evidence would sway me, no matter how impressive. Even if, say, somebody prayed to have an amputated limb restored and it grew back, I'd have to weigh that evidence against all the times when people prayed to have their limbs restored and it didn't happen.  And even if the single shred of evidence was overwhelmingly amazing, like the aforementioned message in the stars, I'd have to wonder whether I was hallucinating.

No, I think what would probably convince me more than anything else would be if the promises made in the holy scriptures actually and unequivocally happened on a consistent basis.  The Bible states repeatedly, for example, that if anybody prays for something in faith it will be given to them (not just that their prayers will be "answered").  The fact that most people don't actually get what they pray for, no matter how sincerely they believe, is just more evidence for the non-existence of God.  But if it were the case that Christians who prayed for things routinely received what they asked for (whether it be the health of a loved one, enough money to pay their rent, a safe trip, or even for a mountain to move from one location to another), I'd have to seriously consider the fact that maybe there's something to this whole God thing after all, despite how otherwise ridiculous it might seem to me.

Similarly, I'd be pretty convinced if faithful Christians routinely handled venomous snakes and drink poison with no ill effects as promised in the New Testament.  Sure, I know there are some fringe sects that do just this (well, they handle snakes, at least -- I'm not sure about the poison drinking), but the leaders have a tendency to die of snake bites after awhile...

Of course, believers will say that we shouldn't test God and that God purposely chooses not to reveal himself in such incontrovertible ways so as to not rob us of the ability to have faith in him.  To which I respond, "Then why did Jesus and his disciples make all those testable claims in the first place?"  I'm sure there are many other justifications why the things promised in the bible usually don't happen as promised ("God moves in mysterious ways", "the age of miracles is past", "it's all metaphorical", etc.), and that's fine.  The purpose of this post is not to point out the inherent inconsistency or hypocrisy involved, it's simply to state what would personally convince me that the God of the Bible actually exists.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Some Random Questions for Theists

OK, I've been watching some debates between theists (usually Christians) and theists again, and as usual I thought of a bunch of questions I really wish I had been able to ask.  I'm not saying these are unanswerable questions, especially since 2000 years of formal apologetics have allowed modern theists to come up with some sort of answer to just about anything thrown their way, but I'd like to think they are questions which would, at the very least, indicate the weakness of some of their positions and assertions.

  • Why do you keep asserting that the universe was "obviously" finely tuned to support life (and specifically intelligent human life), when 99.99999999... % of the known universe is utterly and completely hostile to the existence of life (let alone to human life)?  Is all the rest of the vastness of space just for the sake of decoration?

  • You've said that the observed suffering in the natural world is the direct result of mankind sinning in the Garden of Eden and causing the world (universe?) to enter into a fallen state with suffering and death.  If God is all powerful, however, why did he create a universe where man's sinning would affect all of creation and not just man?  Why would God punish innocent animals instead of just punishing mankind?

  • In the past, theists have claimed that the creation of the universe "out of nothing" proves the existence of God since there's no other possible explanation.  Now that physicists have described ways in which a universe could have arisen out of nothing by purely natural processes, why does it matter whether physicists can prove that this is how it actually happened?  Since you previously said God must exist because there was no other possible way it could have happened, isn't it a sufficient refutation of your "proof" that there is, in fact, at least one possible way after all?

  • As a Christian, what does it matter that some percentage (that you completely made up) of humanity throughout history has had some sort of spiritual experience that lead them to believe in some sort of god or gods?  Even if that somehow proved that there was some sort of God (which it doesn't, since it would only prove at most that humans have a tendency to believe in supernatural beings), what justification is there for assuming that the "God" in question is the Christian one and not, say, the God of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Norse mythology, etc.?

  • How can you claim that the Bible is evidence of the existence of God and then admit that much of it is allegorical and not to be taken literally?  Especially when, once upon a time, it was all thought to be literally true until science and evolving societal norms slowly but surely proved that more and more of it couldn't possibly be literally true??  Also, how do you determine which parts are literally true and which parts are merely allegorical??  Does it bother you that the determination of which parts are literal and which parts are allegorical has changed over time, indicating that there is no "correct" answer other than "everything is literally true that hasn't yet been shown to be demonstrably false or distasteful to our modern sensibilities"?

  • On a related note, how can you claim that "absolute morality" can only come from God and then acknowledge that the only source we have for what God's morality actually is (i.e., the Bible) contains numerous laws and principles that do not apply to today's society and therefore are not absolute?

  • You claim that God is necessary in order to explain what the purpose of life is, which is something science cannot do.  What justification do you have for the assertion that life must necessarily have a purpose in the first place, other than the fact that you find the notion of a life without a purpose to be too depressing to contemplate?

  • Once you have "logically proven" the necessity of some sort of timeless and immaterial supernatural being in order to explain the creation of the universe and all its laws (leaving aside for the moment the question as to whether you actually did prove anything), how do you get from that supernatural being to the God of your particular religion and your particular sect of your particular religion? If you're trying to prove something, it's not enough to just say you have faith in your God or that your God personally spoke to your heart. You're perfectly entitled to your faith, but that's not the "proof" you promised to provide.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Every Theist vs Atheist Debate In a Nutshell

All right, so maybe the title of this post is a wee bit broad, but after watching (and engaging in) many debates between "Theists and Atheists" (a.k.a "Creationists vs Scientists", "Christian Apologists vs. Agnostics" or what have you), I've finally realized that every single debate always ends up following the exact same pattern.

From the atheist side comes the following points, stated in a wide variety of forms:
  • There is no empirical, verifiable, reproducible evidence for any sort of God that is actually worshiped by any religion on earth (leaving open the question whether some sort of timeless, immaterial, non-interventionist, supernatural being might possibly exist beyond our ability to perceive it in any way).
  • The various holy scriptures used by different religious beliefs to justify their faith are all deeply flawed insofar as they have descriptions that are at odds with reality (either readily observed or experimentally verified).  These include descriptions of the creation of the world, supposed miracles, historical events, prophecies, etc.
  • Therefore, since there is no good evidence to support the existence of God and what little evidence is offered is flawed, there is no good reason to believe in God.

From the theist side comes the following points  (again, stated in a wide variety of forms):
  • The holy scriptures state that the entire universe was created by God and therefore "God did it" is an all-encompassing explanation for everything in the universe.
  • Atheists (or scientists) cannot completely explain every single observed phenomena in the universe and provide exact description of every single historical event or process that led the universe to be the way it is today.  And for things that do have a scientific explanation, atheists (or scientists) cannot prove those explanations to be 100% true and accurate in every single case.
  • Therefore, since atheists can't explain everything perfectly and theists have a book that lets them use "God did it" as an explanation to explain everything, there's no valid reason to not believe in God.

In other words, theists and atheists are basically having two completely different conversations, and debates between theists and atheists are therefore usually "won" or lost" based entirely on how the debate is framed.  If the debate is framed by theists as "who can claim to have a source of All Truth," then the theists are going to win every time since atheists aren't actually making any claims to knowledge.  If, however, the debate can be framed as "is there any good evidence to support a belief in God or isn't there," then the atheists have a shot.

The problem comes, however, when theists almost always shift the debate away from their own burden of proof and atheists let themselves be put on the defensive as they try to prove how science has better methods of explaining the universe.  Atheists, however, don't actually need to provide an alternative explanation for everything theists claim can be explained by God, and they should really stop letting themselves get drawn into that sort of discussion during a debate.  Sure, it's awfully nice that modern science has well-tested and verified explanations for such things like how stars and planets form, how life evolves, etc., but that really has nothing to do with whether or not God exists.  Even if science had no explanations whatsoever to explain anything about the world around us, that would simply prove that "we don't know" and not that "God did it."  If a theist wants to prove that "God did it," it's not enough to simply point out that atheists don't have a better explanation -- they need to offer compelling evidence that God did, in fact, do it.

Once the debate is shifted away from "atheists can't prove that God didn't do it", it's possible to actually examine and refute any evidence offered by theists to prove that God exists.  If they go with the argument from design, point out the flaws in that argument.  If they claim their holy book is inerrant, point out all the things that it gets wrong.  If they claim that God is required to have absolute morality, point out that the Bible is full of moral laws that no longer apply today and that every single religion interprets God's laws in a different way (not to mention the fact that many atheists perform good deeds while many theists perform atrocious acts, often justified by their belief in God).  If they go with a cosmological argument that requires some sort of "creator,"point out how much of that argument depends on creative use of definitions (if you can), point out the inconsistency in claiming that everything except for God requires a creator (if you can make a special case for God, why not a special case for the Universe?), and point out that "proving" the existence of a timeless, immaterial being who -- by definition -- cannot possibly interact with the material world or be detected in any way doesn't really provide evidence of any sort of God actually worshiped by anybody.  If they resort to personal anecdotes ("I felt Jesus come into my heart") or so-called "Faith Promoting Stories" ("Little Bobby was lost in the woods and prayed, and then he was rescued!"), point out that anecdotes are not the same as evidence and that confirmation bias let's them ignore all the times Jesus didn't come  into someone's heart and heartfelt prayers weren't granted.  Finally, if they claim that a belief in God gives them comfort, acknowledge that being comforted by a belief isn't actually evidence for the truth of what is believed.

Shifting how a debate is framed isn't always easy, especially when theists know that the only way to succeed is to avoid having to actually justify their own position.  No matter how many times you try to point out that they have no good evidence for what they believe, they will constantly try to get you to provide 100% perfect explanations for everything.  And even if you do manage to shift the debate to actually discussing the evidence for God, it can be an uphill battle wading through the mountains of misinformation and, sad to say, outright lies that get offered as evidence that everything in the Bible is literally true or that religious miracles really did occur, etc.  If you know your stuff, however, and keep the debate focused on the actual topic, you might just get theists to admit that they don't actually have any good evidence for their beliefs and are relying primarily on faith instead.   And that's pretty much as far as you can hope to go, in my experience.  After that it's up to the theists (and those those in the audience watching the debate) to decide whether faith is enough to justify the way they choose to live.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part Four

Misconception Number Four -- Atheists Cannot Act Morally

OK, I discussed morality in some depth earlier in this post, but it bears repeating here the common misconception that a belief in God is required for somebody to act in a moral way and that, therefore, atheists cannot be moral.

Rather than rehash the entire discussion here, let me just make a few bullet points that explain why this misconception is, well, a misconception:
  • There are entire societies that lack a belief in God, such as communist China, that are full of people being nice to one another and treating each other in a way that is, by all accounts, very moral.

  • Morality existed long before the Bible was written.  Even if you accept the Bible as a literally and exclusively true account of human history, does anybody really think that people thought it was perfectly OK to murder, steal, lie, etc., before Moses was given the Ten Commandments?  Did people really need to be told, "God says that murder is wrong" before they were able to figure that out on their own?  Seriously?

  • If "absolute morality" comes from God and is the only way to avoid any sort of "relative morality" (i.e., where different cultures think different things are moral and immoral), then why are there so many religions who interpret the same moral laws in different ways?  Why do some Christians believe homosexuality is a sin, while others think it's perfectly fine?  Why do some Christians feel that divorce is a sin, while others think it is perfectly fine?  Having a source of "absolute morality" doesn't seem to mean all that much as long as nobody can actually agree what that source actually says.

  • On a related note, if God is supposed to provide "absolute morality" that is required for us to behave in a moral way, why have those moral precepts changed over time?  Why did it used to be a sin to eat pork and eat shellfish and wear fabric made of two kinds of cloths, but now it's not a sin?  Why it used to not be a sin to own slaves, but now it is a sin?  The standard answer seems to be that Old Testament laws (some of them, at least) were given to a particular people living in particular circumstances and no longer apply to our circumstances today.  Except, isn't that the very definition of "relative morality"?  And isn't it awfully convenient that the laws that "no longer apply" today just happen to be the ones that we don't actually want to follow today?

  • Most importantly, who decided that any sort of "absolute morality" is even needed in the first place in order to be moral?  Morality is just a word, a human construct, that defines how people think we should act toward one another.  It varies from time to time, from place to place and from group to group.  At it's most basic, morality is simply a feeling that we should treat other people the way we want to be treated.  Or, more simply, don't be a dick toward others.  It's rooted in our evolution as intelligent, empathetic creatures and likely evolved as a way to help humans live together in a society instead of having to go it all on our own.  As a result, concepts of morality can and do evolve over time as societies evolve and there's no need to point to any sort of "absolute" morality in order to whether an act is moral or not within a particular society.   We may think France is "immoral" because they let women walk around topless at beaches.  Arab countries feel the United States is "immoral" because we let women walk around with their hair and faces exposed.  And each culture is convinced that their beliefs are guided by "absolute" moral principles handed down from on high.

  • In short, you don't need to believe in God to think you should treat other people with respect, and a belief in God certainly doesn't lead all believers to treat others with respect.  In fact, you could argue that humans are inherently moral creatures and it takes a belief in God (or religion, if you prefer) to convince people to treat other people as "lesser beings" for not sharing those beliefs.
All right, my "few" bullet points ended up being more than just a few.  Just think of this post as strengthening my previous post on the subject rather than rehashing it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Another Evolution Analogy

In a previous post I discussed (among other things) Richard Dawkins' "Climbing Mount Improbable," in which he laid out a good analogy comparing the gradual process of evolution to a walk up a very gradual slope that eventually leads to the top of a very high mountain.  It's a very good analogy, but I fear it may require a bit too much work to accept it since (a) not everybody has experience with climbing up gradual slopes and (b) a change in altitude is not really in the same conceptual ballpark as the change that species undergo over time.  It's strength is, I believe, primarily in the way it conveys how extremely small changes can add up to large changes over extreme lengths of time.  But some folks will probably still reject it because they simply can't get their minds wrapped around the comparison of time to distance.

After much thought, I believe I have come up with, if not a better analogy, at least a complimentary analogy to the one Professor Dawkins discussed.  It lacks the sense of vast time in Dawkins' analogy, but is more grounded in everyday experience and deals with actual biological processes.  It also helps deal with the common objection heard by Creationists that there are no "transitional" fossils that show one species evolving into a completely different species.

Let's imagine a father who photographs his newborn child and decides to take a new photograph of the child once every minute of every hour of every single day from that point on. At the end of the first day, the father has 1400 pictures, after one week he has 10,080 pictures, and at the end of a year he has a whopping 525,960 pictures. At the end of ten years, the stack has grown to 5,259,600 pictures, and by the time the child is 50 years old, the stack has grown to 26,298,000 pictures. And (assuming the father was extremely long-lived or passed the duties on to somebody else), by the time the child is 90 years old, the stack has a massive 47,336,400 pictures, all showing the gradual growth of a baby into an elderly man one minute at a time.

Now, over a period of ninety years, the child has changed from a newborn infant to an elderly man, and along the way the child progressed through various well-defined stages (infant, toddler, child, pre-teen, adolescent, young adult, adult, middle-age, senior citizen, elderly) . And if you randomly selected any example from that stack of 47,336,400 pictures, you would be able to clearly identify which stage of life the child was in at the time that photograph was taken. No photograph, however, would show a clear "transition" from one stage to the next. You wouldn't, for example, find a picture showing the child with the body of a baby and the head of a toddler. Or the arms of a teenager but the legs of an adult. Or (to mirror some of the extreme examples asked for by Young Earth Creationists), the body of an infant and the head of a senior citizen.

The point is that the change from infant to elder is so gradual that there are no clear-cut transitions from one stage of life to the next. Somebody may legally be considered an adult at the age of 18, but it would be impossible to detect any physiological differences between a person one minute or one hour or even day before his 18th birthday and one minute, hour or day after his 18th birthday. And this isn't to say that there aren't any transitional photographs of the child; instead, it means that every single photograph shows a transition from the previous minute to the next minute and the supposedly "well-defined" stages of life are really just shortcuts we use to describe people instead of actually having some sort of absolute definitions.

The same is generally true with regard to the fossil record and the evidence it provides for evolutionary processes.  Just as children gradually change into adults over time, species gradually change into other species over time.  The only difference is that species change over millions of years instead of 90 years, but the principal is the same.  Just as you will never find a photograph of somebody who has the head of an infant and the body of an adult, you will never find a fossil showing the head of one species and the body of a previous species.  And this isn't to say that there aren't any transitional fossils; instead, it means that every single fossil shows a transition from the prior generation to the following generation and the concept of "well-defined" species is really just a shortcut we use to describe life instead of actually having some sort of absolute definition.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Religious Freedom to Discriminate?

There has been a lot of discussion in the news lately about various state and federal laws that purport to "restore" religious liberty but which, in reality, are specifically designed to allow people and businesses to discriminate against other people based on their religious beliefs.    Despite the broad language of the laws, the legislative history shows that they were specifically implemented to prevent people and businesses from being "forced" to provide services to gay couples looking to get married.  So, for example, a cake shop couldn't, under these laws, be sued civilly for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding and a photographer couldn't be sued for refusing to take wedding pictures for a gay couple.  Because, you see, in many states the existing laws prohibited businesses from refusing to provide services on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, gender or sexual preference, so these new laws provide a loophole if the discrimination is based on one's religious beliefs (as opposed to garden-variety bigotry, I suppose).

The language used to draft and support these laws is positively Orwellian, of course, as they try to argue that it's not at all about discrimination and solely about religious freedom, despite the fact that the freedom being sought is, in fact, the freedom to discriminate against others.

All of this has been said before by many other people.  One key thing seems to get ignored during discussions of these laws, however.  Since when does Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) actually teach that it's OK to discriminate against anybody in the first place?  I mean, if the government passed a law saying that, for examples, Mormon churches had to perform temple marriage ceremonies for gay couples, or Catholic churches had to start ordaining women to the priesthood, I would agree 100% that this was an unconstitutional intrusion of the government into religion.  And that's because a core Mormon belief is that temple marriages are reserved for the joining of a man and a woman, and a core Catholic belief is that only men can hold the priesthood.  You may disagree with those beliefs, but they are certainly things actually taught by those religions and accepted by the members.

However, while the Mormon church does teach that gay couples are not "worthy" of being married in the temple, I don't recall any teaching saying faithful members are not allowed to provide services to gay couples who are getting married elsewhere.  Similarly, while the Catholic church does not allow female priests, I'm pretty sure there's no prohibition against providing services to a woman who happens to be a clergy member of another religion.  Heck -- the Catholic church prohibits divorce and I doubt you'd find a single catholic photographer or baker who refused to provide services at a wedding that involved a divorcee remarrying.

The point is that Christianity teaches that you should not sin, true, but it does not teach that you should discriminate against those who believe differently than you.  So, while your "religious freedom" certainly includes the right to practice your religion the way you see fit, it doesn't give you the right to discriminate against those who don't share your beliefs.  And, while you may claim that discrimination against others is how you practice your religion, you're just using your religion as a shield for your own bigotry since that's not what your religion actually teaches.

[As an aside, I can't help wondering why nobody claims to be unable to provide services to people who, say, violate the sabbath by holding their wedding on a Sunday, or who have committed adultery, or who worship some other God, or who have shown disrespect to their parents, etc.  These are all sins specifically prohibited by the Ten Commandments, which is supposed to be the most important thing in the entire Bible.  Maybe it's because the people who want to discriminate against gays commit all those other sins themselves?  Or maybe it really is just the fact that they are prejudiced against gays and are looking for a justification for their prejudice.]

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Argument from Design

I’ve touched upon aspects of this in other posts, but I thought it was time to try and put all my thoughts on this subject together into one post.

The so-called “Argument from Design” is one of the most common and most powerful arguments that theists have at their disposal when they want to argue for the existence of God.  It gets trotted out during nearly every debate between theists and atheists, it underpins the entire “Intelligent Design” movement, and is often the sole argument that your average, run-of-the mill theist (as opposed to professional apologists) can think of when asked to justify his or her belief in God.  And when I say it is a powerful argument, I simply mean that it is highly persuasive, not that it is actually a particularly sound or valid argument.

In a nutshell, the Argument from Design simply states that the entire observable universe provides evidence that some intelligent being purposely designed it, and this being is what we commonly call “God.”  A more formal statement of the argument might look similar to the following:
  1. Much of what we can observe in the universe has the appearance of being designed.
  2. Things that appear to be designed most likely were designed, especially when they are too complicated to have happened any other way.
  3. Anything that is designed must, by definition, have a designer.
  4. The act of designing requires intelligence and purpose.
  5. Therefore, there must be an intelligent and purposeful being or entity who designed the universe, and this is a label that fits our traditional notions of God.
Let me try and tackle these points one at a time.

Much of what we can observe in the universe has the appearance of being designed.

It is certainly true that much of what we can observe in the universe, especially here on Earth, has the appearance of being designed.  The key word, of course, being appearance.  To say that everything we observed actually is designed is to assume the very point being argued, so we have to stick with appears to be designed at this stage in the argument.  We also need to keep in mind that the whole “appears to be designed” thing really doesn’t apply to everything we observe.  Yes, we have learned through centuries of careful scientific observation how cells work like tiny machines and that higher organisms are made up of trillions of cells working together in unison.  But much of what we observe beyond our planet has the appearance of sheer chaos.

Things that appear to be designed most likely were designed, especially when they are too complicated to have happened any other way.

This is really the crux of the entire Argument from Design.  If something appears to be designed and there’s no way for it to have happened other than being designed, it must therefore have been designed.  This is the argument made so famously by William Paley some two hundred years ago when he used a pocket watch as an analogy to the natural world.  When we encounter something as complex as a pocket watch, the very fact of its existence and complexity testifies to the fact that it was designed by an intelligent creator and did not just occur by chance.  Similarly, we can look at the natural world – the complex organisms, the cycle of the seasons, the movement of the stars and planets – and know that it couldn’t all have happened by chance.

Another, more modern, analogy compares the natural world to a painting found hanging from a tree in a forest.  Only a fool would see that painting, frame and all, and think it possible that it could have just happened by the chance accumulation of elements over time or that it just grew there exactly like that.

The problem with analogies, however, is that they are just that – analogies.  They are attempts to explain something by comparing it to something else and are not statements of fact or proofs in and of themselves.  As a result, an analogy is only as good as the things being compared.  In this case, the watch and painting analogies fail for a number of reasons, including the following:
  • In both analogies, the object in question is found in isolation in a situation where it is clearly different from its surroundings.  Nature, on the other hand, is a unified whole.
  • It’s easy to identify a watch or a painting as designed because we have seen numerous other examples of watches and paintings that have all been designed.  We know the processes involved in making a watch or painting a picture, so it’s safe to assume that any other watch or painting we discover was made in a similar fashion.  The same is not true with items in nature, however.  We have never seen anybody make a cell or a bear or a tree and therefore can’t say that the process must be the same as things made outside of nature.
  • We can “know” that a watch or a painting is designed because there is no other way to explain how it could come to be.  The same used to be true for items in the natural world, but we now have much greater knowledge and can explain how seemingly complex natural items could arise purely by natural processes.  And keep in mind that “by natural processes” is not the same thing as “by random chance,” since natural processes can include a great degree or organization and direction, even if not driven by any purposeful intelligence (see my post on Accepting Evolution for a more in-depth discussion of this).
  • Any claim that something “couldn’t impossibly have occurred unless it was designed” is really just a statement of personal ignorance as to the mechanisms involved.  This is often referred to as the problem of “Irreducible Complexity,” which sounds scientific, but is really just a made-up term that means “I don’t understand how evolution works.”  It used to be argued, for example, that the human eye was so complex that it had to have been created all at once and couldn’t possibly have evolved over time.  Recent studies have shown, however, exactly how a complex eye could have evolved over time, starting from light-sensitive cells and eventually becoming the imperfect organs we have today.  “But what good is a partial eye,” you may ask?  Just look at all the creatures alive today that have less evolved eyes and ask them how their “partial eyes” benefit them compared to not having any eyes at all.

Anything that is designed must, by definition, have a designer.

Well, true, I suppose that’s purely a matter of definition.  If you assume that something is designed, it must have a designer of some sort.  The problem with this (aside from the fact that it’s really just a tautology like saying “anything painted has a painter” or “any thought has a thinker”) is two-fold:
  • As discussed above, the mere appearance of design doesn’t necessarily mean that something was, in fact, designed.
  • The word “designed” presumes the existence of intelligence and purpose, whereas more neutral terms like “created” or “formed” do not.  A falling meteorite can create a crater.  Years of dripping water can form marvelous looking stalactites and stalagmites in a cave.  Neither of these occurrences involves purpose or intelligence.  Unfortunately, some people like to use the term “design” to simply mean “created” or “formed” and thereby claim that some purposeful and intelligent designer must, by definition, have been behind it.

The act of designing requires intelligence and purpose.

This point is really nothing more than anthropomorphism at its worst.  Since we design things and we are intelligent and purposeful, we assume that all things that are “designed” must also be done by some entity that is intelligent and purposeful.  However, as discussed previously, what many people call “design” is more properly referred to as “creation” or “formation” and these words do not require any sort of intelligence or purpose at all.

Therefore, there must be an intelligent and purposeful being or entity who designed the universe, and this is a label that fits our traditional notions of God.

Well, since I’ve already addressed the problems with all the underlying premises, there’s no further need to show why this conclusion is false.  I will point out the leap in logic, however, required to go from “an intelligent being who designed the universe” and “my personal concept of a God.”  There are many different and contradictory notions of God throughout the world and throughout history, and everybody who uses the Argument from Design seems to use it to justify a belief in a different God.  If the Argument from Design works just as well to “prove” the existence of Jehovah as it does Allah, Shiva or Zeus, maybe the argument isn’t quite as powerful as it’s cracked up to be.

In reality, all the Argument from Design attempts to prove is the existence of some sort of intelligent designer.  Sure, it could be the particular God of the person making the argument, but why assume so?  Heck – given all the observable flaws with the natural world (genetic diseases, blind spots, vestigial organs, etc.), one might argue that the Argument from Design best provides evidence for a malevolent or incompetent god or gods instead of the all-powerful, all-loving Christian God.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part Three

Misconception Number Three -- It Requires More Faith to Be an Atheist than to Believe in God

No, actually it doesn’t require any faith to be an atheist.  All it requires is for you to not believe that “God did it.”  This argument is usually accompanied by a whole bunch of blather about how ridiculously improbable it is that our universe came to exist exactly the way it did and that the only possible explanation is GOD.

I won’t go into all the flaws with the so-called “argument from design” or the “finely tuned universe” (check out some of my other blog posts for long-winded discussions on those issues), but the bottom line is that even if atheists had no explanation whatsoever as to how the universe came to be the way it is and how we came to be in it, that still just leads us to a big fat “WE DON’T KNOW” and not “GOD DID IT.”  Why God?  Why not some as yet undiscovered universal force?  Why not a multiverse? Why not aliens?  And if God, why YOUR God and not somebody else’s God (Allah, Vishnu, Odin, Zeus, etc.)?

I get it, though.  I really do.  Having been there myself once upon a time, I know what it is like to look around the world in wonder and think that it all couldn't have just happened on its own without some sort of intelligence guiding it.  And, since we just happen to have this book of scripture describing exactly such an intelligence, and since billions of people believe in that intelligence, and since all my family and friends tell me how important it is to believe in such an intelligence, well, you'd think that believing in such an intelligence is so blindingly obvious that it would take an extreme act of will to actively NOT believe in such an intelligence, right?

Except, all you’re really saying is that, since you personally (and those you hand around with) cannot understand how it all came to be, it “must” be the way it was described in the particular ancient text that you personally accept as true, despite the fact that there are lots of other ancient text that are accepted by other people that say completely different things. Sure, billions of people believe that the entire universe was created by some sort of God, but they certainly don't all share belief in the same sort of God.  Just because you have the Bible and think that proves what you believe to be true, other people have their Koran or Bhagavad Gita or what have you.  And to those people, it is just as obvious how the universe was created as it is to you, except that they believe something completely different.

No, it doesn’t take faith to admit ignorance, just honesty.  But keep in mind that many of the things that supposedly “can’t be explained without God” are either wholly specious in the first place (such as the supposed “finely tuned universe” argument) or else actually CAN now be explained perfectly well.  We don’t know all the answers, and perhaps never will, but we certainly know a heck of a lot more about the universe now than the desert tribesmen who wrote scriptures thousands of years ago.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part Two

Misconception Number Two -- Atheists Have the Burden of Proof to Show that God Doesn’t Exist

It used to be that theists would claim that science and religion operated in completely different realms.  Science deals with “how” things work and religion deals with “why” the universe is the way it is.  Science deals with things that can be proven via evidence, whereas religion is all about faith in things that neither can be, nor need to be, proven and for which no evidence is required.  And certainly there are still plenty of theists who feel this way today.

There has been a shift in recent years, however, as science has made more and more inroads into solving many of the “deep” questions that were once thought to be solely the domain of religion.  Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  What happens to us after we die?  In addition, people have started to realize that many religious claims, such as miracles, the historical accuracy of scriptures, etc., should be verifiable with evidence.  As a result, people are much less willing to accept religious teachings based solely on faith and are expecting theists to shoulder the burden of proof that science requires whenever anybody makes a positive claim.

Some theists do attempt to provide “evidence” to support their beliefs, but many try to avoid the issue by claiming that atheists can’t prove their assertion either that there is no God.  It’s not enough, these theists claim, for atheists to simply claim not to believe in God – they somehow have to prove God doesn’t exist, or admit that he does.

Sadly, that’s simply not the way science or the burden of proof works.  Yes, we ask theists to provide justification for their belief in God since they are making affirmative statements that contradict observable reality.  That’s how science works – you make a claim, you provide evidence as to why your claim is true.

Atheists, however, are not necessarily claiming that God doesn’t exist.  All we are claiming is that theists haven’t given us any good reasons to believe that he exists.  We don’t need to prove a negative.

Having said that, though, I will say that with regard to specific descriptions of god contained in various religious texts and worshiped by specific religions, it is rather easy to “disprove” those gods in the same way you could easily disprove the existence of an adult African elephant living under my desk as I type his.  All you have to do is consider what evidence would have to be there in order for the claim to be true, and if the evidence is missing than the claim is disproved.  So, while no atheist can possibly disprove the existence of an immaterial being who exists outside of space and time and whose existence, by definition, cannot even be proved in the first place, it is actually pretty easy to disprove the existence of a being who is described as having specific attributes, interacting with humanity in specific ways, making specific promises, etc.  When presented with this fact, however, the theists who require atheists to "prove that God doesn't exist" always seem to fall back on the other type of "god" (i.e., the god that bears no relationship to the one they claim to actually worship) and then say, "HA!  You can't prove that no concept of God could possibly exist, therefore I win!"


Bait and switch.  It's like saying that, just because I can't prove that there is no intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (which I can't, of  course, since the universe is such a vast place), I therefore can't prove that a particular grainy photo doesn't actually depict an alien spacecraft, despite the fact that it bears a striking resemblance to an aluminum pie tin, the string holding it up is visible and the person who took the photo has admitted in the past to creating hoax UFO pictures. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part One

All right, I should probably have called this “Top Ten Lies about Atheists” or “Top Ten Misrepresentations about Atheists” or even “Top Ten Things People Claim about Atheists Even Though They Know Full Well They Aren’t True and Have Been Refuted Repeatedly,” but I figure there must be at least some theists out there who are sincere and honestly believe what they have been told about atheists.  This post is addressed at these hypothetical sincere theists and not those who go out of their way to repeat stuff they know to be false for the purpose of advancing their own agenda (“a.k.a. “Lying for Jesus”).

As always, I apologize if any of the “misconceptions” I describe seem like straw men arguments of their own, misrepresenting what theists say about atheists.  I certainly don’t claim that all theists have these misconceptions, but they are all legitimately misconceptions I have personally encountered from different theists.

Oh – and this list isn’t ranked in any particular order and probably won’t have exactly ten items….

Misconception Number One -- Atheists Believe There Is No God, Are Angry at God or Hate God

First off, let me preface this by pointing out that the word atheist literally means somebody who does not have a belief in a god of any sort.  Beyond that, it’s really hard to lump all atheists together and say what they do, or do not, believe or what their “true” motivations are.  Just like, beyond the fact that all theists, by definition, believe in a god or gods of some sort, it’s impossible to say anything else about “all theists.”

Having said that, there are certainly gradations as to how different atheists approach or define their non-belief in god.  There are many atheists, true, who have investigated the claims of different religions and have come to the conclusion that the gods described by those religions can’t possibly be true, whether because of logical impossibility, contradictory statements in the holy scriptures about the god in question, lack of any supporting evidence that should be there if the god existed, actions of those who profess belief in those gods (“by their fruits ye shall know them”), etc.  But there are also many atheists who haven’t really given it much thought and simply have no reason to believe in any particular god, usually because they were raised in a family or a culture where God was never discussed.  Many theists may believe that a belief in God (they’re personal version of God, of course) is the natural state of man and that one must actively resist that belief in order to be an atheist.  In fact, however, all you need to not believe in God is to not be taught to believe in him in the first place.  It's sort of like claiming that belief in Santa Claus is the natural state of man (despite the fact that many people have never even heard of Santa Claus and there are wide variations in how Santa is depicted even among those people who do believe in him).  You don't need to be actively taught that Santa Claus doesn't exist in order to not believe in him -- you just have to never be taught that he does exist in the first place.

As for atheists being angry at God or hating him, I suppose it is certainly true that some people who call themselves atheists feel this way. Again, though, as comforting as it is to think that God’s existence is so obvious that the only people who claim disbelief are those who KNOW he exists and actively reject him, the truth is that most atheists either have lost their belief due to learning more about the world or never had a belief to begin with.