Monthly Archives: January 2014

Answers for Christians, Geeky or Otherwise

Boredom does funny things to the mind. It can cause obsessive introspection, generally resulting in stark existential dread. Or, more commonly, it can lead down dark paths in your shady internet neighbourhood. Inspired somewhat by an episode of the Dogma Debate podcast – recently listened to but broadcast months ago – I’ve decided to go back to basics and look at a few questions fundamental to my lack of a god-belief. This might serve as a belated introduction, and perhaps a handy primer for laypeople when confronting common apologetic arguments. These questions come from Dr. Norman Geisler’s book Conversational Evangelism, as reposted on the Geeky Christian blog

1. Are you absolutely sure there is no God? If not, then is it not possible that there is a God? And if it is possible that God exists, then can you think of any reason that would keep you from wanting to look at the evidence?

We begin with an easy one. No, I am not absolutely sure that there is no God. It is possible that there is a God, though I would certainly say that there are certain conceptions of God which have been offered that can be positively said not to exist. This category would include logically incoherent Gods. A perfectly just and perfectly merciful God, for instance. Since mercy is pardoning someone from their deserved punishment, these two “perfections” are mutually exclusive. Either God punishes everyone according to their desserts, or he pardons certain people because of his mercy. So, entirely dependent upon the definition of God being put forth, God’s existence is a possibility. The final part of this question is slightly problematic, as no evidence is forthcoming for these special gods which are not already discounted by their incoherence. These gods seem to be entirely unfalsifiable, possibly existent but following a strict policy of non-intervention. Unfalsifiable propositions can have no evidence for or against, and thus there is no good reason to believe that they are true. I suspect that I am being tempted to admit my inherent biases against theism, particularly my desire to go on sinning, but no amount of unbiblical merriment can make an unfalsifiable proposition more acceptable. So gods are either testable, and have failed to materialise when tested, or unfalsifiable and unbelievable by nature.

2. Would you agree that intelligently designed things call for an intelligent designer of them? If so, then would you agree that evidence for intelligent design in the universe would be evidence for a designer of the universe?

By definition, an intelligently designed thing demands at least one intelligent designer. This is tautological. However, evidence for intelligent design in the universe would not be evidence for an intelligent designer of the universe. It would merely count as evidence for the existence of one or more designers of that particular feature of the universe. Evidence for an intelligent designer of the universe demands evidence of intelligent design of the universe as a whole. Anything less could only support a sub-universal intelligent designer(s).

3. Would you agree that nothing cannot produce something? If so, then if the universe did not exist but then came to exist, wouldn’t this be evidence of a cause beyond the universe?

Nothing is an incoherent concept when used in this way. What would nothing actually look like? What would the features of nothing be? Could nothing even exist? This is not the definition of nothing used by physicists like Lawrence M. Krauss, but a colloquial definition that seems not to have been thoroughly thought out.. Taking the second part of the question, according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. This would seem to imply that the a material universe such as ours could not come to exist, having not existed, as this would violate this scientific principle. If the universe had simply popped out of this questionable nothing, this would indeed be evidence of an extra-universal cause, but it is unclear whether such an event could or did ever happen. Indeed, the current Big Bang model states that in the beginning (of our current universe at least) there was an infinitesimally small and dense point into which all of matter, energy, space and time were concentrated. This is referred to as a “singularity”. A singularity, being something, is emphatically not nothing.

4. Would you agree with me that just because we cannot see something with our eyes—such as our mind, gravity, magnetism, the wind—that does not mean it doesn’t exist?

Inability to see something is not, on its own, a reason to disbelieve in the existence of a thing. Just to add to the question’s examples, we cannot see atoms, germs or Wi-Fi signals either. However, this is an incomplete stipulation as to what it is reasonable to believe. Things which cannot be seen can still assert their existence by their observable effects. We cannot see our mind or Wi-Fi signals, but without these, how exactly am I communicating this to you? Certain of these entities can actually be observed directly with powerful enough magnification, but anyone who has experienced flu would be foolish to doubt the existence of microbes. And as for atoms… Well… Pretty conclusive. The point at which we are justified in disbelieving the existence of something is when we cannot see it with our eyes, and nor can we observe its effects where effects would be expected. This is often summarised as “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”, provided that such evidence ought to be present.

5. Would you also agree that just because we cannot see God with our eyes does not necessarily mean He doesn’t exist?

This really ought to have been a part of the previous question. As stated above, it is not only our inability to see God that makes disbelief a reasonable conclusion; it is the added inability to see any of the observable effects of God that makes atheism tenable.

6. In the light of the big bang evidence for the origin of the universe, is it more reasonable to believe that no one created something out of nothing or someone created something out of nothing?

See my above point about the nature of the singularity, and their peculiar not-nothingness.

7. Would you agree that something presently exists? If something presently exists, and something cannot come from nothing, then would you also agree that something must have always existed?

It would be rather self-denying to deny that something presently exists – even doubting Descartes thought that our own thought was an undeniably existent thing. So I can happily assent to the first question. The second part is fairly unobjectionable as well, as creation ex nihilo is an unlikely proposition. So something must have always existed. As far back as we can trace, at no point is there nothing, whether the something in its place is the universe or the singularity, and so these may be accepted as those eternally existent things – not least because they are the same stuff in different forms. Add in the point that time, as well as space and matter, is theorised to have come into existence in its current form during the Big Bang expansion, it may be incorrect to demand that something must have existed for all time. “Always” can only be measured as “at every point in time”, so without time, there is no always.

8. If it takes an intelligent being to produce an encyclopedia, then would it not also take an intelligent being to produce the equivalent of 1000 sets of an encyclopedia full of information in the first one-celled animal? (Even atheists such as Richard Dawkins acknowledges that “amoebas have as much information in their DNA as 1000 Encyclopaedia Britannicas.” Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: WW. Norton and Co., 1996), 116.)

A small point to begin – the first one-celled animal was not an amoeba. Modern amoebae have been evolving for as long as humans have, and have therefore accumulated the same billions of years of genetic baggage to achieve their enormous amount of genetic “information”. The scare-quotes are entirely intentional – information is not something inherent in DNA, but rather is the way in which our minds understand DNA. DNA is entirely chemical, and those chemicals interact according to physical laws, producing certain chemical effects. Information only emerges when a mind comes along, puts names to the different chemicals involved and describes the physical interactions thereof. The use of “CGAT” in the description of DNA, and descriptions of DNA strings being “millions of letters long” give no credence to the notion that DNA is information.

9. If an effect cannot be greater than its cause (since you can’t give what you do not have to give), then does it not make more sense that mind produced matter than that matter produced mind, as atheists say?

The word “greater” is not clearly defined in this question, threatening it with outright incomprehensibility. If “greater” in this context refers to physical size, it makes far more sense to say that matter produced mind, as matter actually has mass, while mind is, as stated in question 4, is not visible. If “greater” simply means “better”, this seems a value judgement coming from a biased mind, convinced of its own importance. Mind is an incredible phenomenon, and can lead to incredible reasoning, beautiful acts of creativity, and powerful emotions. But all of these wonderful effects can be immediately halted by damage to the matter causing this mind-phenomenon – the brain. This gives us a clear indication of which is greater, so it would seem to make more sense to say that matter produced mind, as atheists say.

10. Is there anything wrong anywhere? If so, how can we know unless there is a moral law?

This is a serious contender for “Vaguest Question Ever Posed”. It may narrowly lose to, “Is there stuff somewhere?”. You need to define the term “wrong” to even ask this question. Luckily, the second part of the question offers a clue – this wrong is a moral wrong. So, I can now offer an answer; yes, there is something wrong somewhere. Maybe several somethings and myriad somewheres. Alas, the assumption that wrong can only exist as a contravention of a moral law is a tenuous, vaguely authoritarian assertion. Instead, why not define wrong as an instance of the suffering of conscious creatures, and point to one of the billions of examples available on Earth. Voila wrong appears, as a factual occurrence and not a value judgement, without the necessity for a moral law. This is clearly open to the criticism that this simply creates a moral law with the rule that “Whatsoever is an instance of the suffering of conscious creatures is wrong.” While I am personally happy to accept the notion that suffering is bad by definition, this criticism is largely unproblematic – let me adopt this as my moral law.

11. If every law needs a lawgiver, does it not make sense to say a moral law needs a Moral Lawgiver?

While I’m flattered to be awarded with capitalisation, it’s unnecessary. I’m content to simply be a moral lawgiver. It is tautological to say that a moral law needs a moral lawgiver, and these questions give no good reason to think that such a lawgiver need be capitalised – many humans create moral laws, and make judgements of right and wrong.

12. Would you agree that if it took intelligence to make a model universe in a science lab, then it took super-intelligence to make the real universe?

The problem with any analogy is that it breaks down when you examine it too closely. This argument is put forth in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, instead using a comparison between a house and the universe. My reply is the same as Philo’s – a model universe and the actual universe are too dissimilar to draw any conclusions from such an analogy. The initial conditions of the model and the universe are entirely different. The universe is 13.7 billion years old in its current form, and potentially eternal/timeless before the Big Bang expansion. The model is much younger. A model built by hand may be analogously compared to the universe, but so could the reproductive development of a sheep – from a single zygote, a complex animal composed of billions of cells results. Why not propose that the universe was birthed by the Cosmic Ewe? Either analogy seems equally plausible, at least partially because neither approximates the universe very well.

13. Would you agree that it takes a cause to make a small glass ball found in the woods? And would you agree that making the ball larger does not eliminate the need for a cause? If so, then doesn’t the biggest ball of all (the whole universe) need a cause?

Since a small glass ball is an effect, it requires a cause. This is uncontroversial. A yet bigger ball would likewise require a cause. The universal ball is also in the business of requiring a cause, and we have a suitable cause all ready – the Big Bang expansion. From the singularity, our universe has expanded to its current state, and is still expanding, as this event billions of years ago continues to exert its influence.

14. If there is a cause beyond the whole finite (limited) universe, would not this cause have to be beyond the finite, namely, non-finite or infinite?

If the singularity is eternal, by virtue of existing without the time that is a feature of our universe, then it serves nicely as the infinite cause of our admittedly finite universe. But even if we do not accept the eternal singularity, we might point to the Big Bang-Big Crunch model, which states that this universe is one of a series, which began with an expansion, and which will end with a retraction back into the singularity before bouncing back into expansion. If this is the case, no infinite cause is necessary for our finite universe, as we may simply appeal backwards to the chain of finite causes back to the beginning of our universe and beyond.

15. In the light of the anthropic principle (that the universe was fine-tuned for the emergence of life from its very inception), wouldn’t it make sense to say there was an intelligent being who preplanned human life?

Why must we grant the anthropic principle? This seems like a remarkably myopic view of the universe. For a universe fine-tuned for the emergence of life, there is a staggering amount of waste. Taking only our own star system, 12.5% of the planetary bodies are capable of supporting life. This is a pretty poor result for supposed fine-tuning. Douglas Adams had a brilliant illustration for demonstrating the foolishness of the anthropic principle. Imagine an irregularly-shaped pothole in the road. One day a rain comes and fills the pothole to the brim. The resultant puddle then marvels at the perfection of his situation – this divot in the ground is exactly the right size and shape to accommodate him. What are the odds? Pretty good, actually. Life has adapted to the universe, and not vice versa. We find animals thriving in their environment because those who didn’t have died off in favour of their better-suited brethren. And on a broader scale, if the universe had been unsuitable for the existence of life, none of us would be here to complain about the fact. These facts mean that the assumption that the universe proceeds according to the plan of an intelligent being, while technically possible, is entirely unsupported and thus not worth believing.

Over and over again while answering these questions, certain fallacies kept flashing across my mind. “Argument from Ignorance!” “Strawman!” “Equivocation!” As well as “Poor Wording!” In the end, some of my answers may be foolish or factually inaccurate – and if they are, please correct me. Theoretical physics is not a strong suit of mine, and I do not claim to be much more than scientifically illiterate. However, that doesn’t particularly matter, as these questions are an exercise in shifting the burden of proof onto the atheist, and claiming that if they cannot offer comprehensive answers to these queries, theism is the necessary conclusion. No positive evidence for God is offered above, and the worst position that my inability to answer would push me into is “I don’t know. But you don’t know either. I still see no reason to believe in God.” More proof is required than misrepresentation and special pleading can offer.

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I Agree with Pastor Rich Henderson… Sort Of…

Much has already been made in the atheist press, such as it is, about a recent Huffington Post article by Pastor Rich Henderson proclaiming that, “there is no such thing as a good atheist.” Most of the criticisms are spot-on – that his piece is an abuse of logic, that his terminology is sloppy, and that he himself is so patronising that he thinks “worldview” is a complex term. However, there are aspects of his critique that I agree with. So, in a departure from my usual bilious torrent of cynical criticism, I want to take each of his points as it comes and rebut or agree wherever is appropriate. This is all while acknowledging his clever “Vegas hustler” prestidigitation, which seems to regard a no-lose argument as a strength rather than a weakness.

In addition to the familiar definition of atheist – which for my purposes is simply a non-theist, someone who does not hold a theistic belief – Henderson adds three additional necessary beliefs that must be held to qualify for this label.

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

Henderson seems to have in mind a more specific kind of nonbeliever, namely a rational, skeptical atheist. I personally have no problem in acquiescing to this definition, as it fits me to a T. I suppose that atheistic Buddhists, Raelians, and Jedi can indeed be good people, though evidently they cannot be atheists. And god forbid that you believe in ghosts, homeopathy, and your own imprisonment within the Matrix. But Henderson needs a scientific atheistic materialist in order to form his argument, so we’ll just disregard our less skeptical atheist brethren.

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.

I wish that Henderson had elaborated on this point, because it really does merit a better defence than bald assertion. Indeed, if his argument had been phrased thus:

These are all actions that can be known and explained but do not possess any inherent meaning or value.

I would have no problem with this statement. From the perspective of the universe, a barking dog and the liberation of a sex slave have precisely the same lack of meaning. This is, of course, due to the very salient point that the universe is a gigantic physical phenomenon lacking its own consciousness, and therefore the very tools to make a value judgement. Where Henderson’s assertion falls apart, and likely the reason that he neglected to phrase it that way, is his failure to notice that there is something within the universe that does possess a consciousness, and therefore the tools for the job – humans. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of value or meaning judgements every day, whether about war crimes or the quality of our morning coffee. Such value judgements, imposed as they are from the exterior of an object or event, are instrumental, rather than inherent. Henderson’s article fails to make this crucial distinction, and so he only argues as to the impossibility of the ascription of inherent meaning by atheists. Instrumental meaning is still our plaything.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality.

Again, I agree with Henderson in his conclusion, with the qualification that I agree only is his use of “objective meaning and morality” means “meaning and morality independent of the status of conscious creatures”. I doubt Henderson would object to my reading of his words. Objective meaning, in Henderson’s view, demands some medium through which such meaning can exist, which does indeed seem to demand at least a universe-wide force with the ability to make value judgements. (It ought to be noted that I don’t see exactly how the morality imposed by a god is any less subjective than that imposed by a human – it remains subject to one particular entity. He’s just bigger than you.) But yet again, Henderson neglects to mention a version of objective morality and meaning that seems quite at home in this materialistic, scientific, and impersonal universe. This objective morality is objective insofar as it is applicable to all conscious creatures in an objective way – see Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. In a universe of unconscious rocks, this morality, unlike Henderson’s morality, would no longer exist, but as long as there are conscious creatures capable of flourishing and suffering, objective morality is possible. Objective meaning, in this sense, is more problematic, and I confess that I have thought far less about this side of the issue. However, meaning is of less pragmatic value than morality, and therefore it seems less imperative to argue for objective meaning than for objective morality.

While Henderson cannot does not mention these nuances concerning meaning and its application, one of the three atheists he quote blatantly state the point, evidently avoiding his notice:

“Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.” (Emphasis mine)
–William Provine

Provine is quite correct in his assertion that there is no ultimate meaning for humans, and thus there is no problem with this statement. One can easily deny the existence of ultimate meaning while allowing for the existence of more fleeting senses of meaning, or simply a meaning that doesn’t outlive the person providing the meaning.

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins

As stated above the universe, by its very nature, is entirely incapable of offering us anything but “blind, pitiless indifference”, but Dawkins is a poor choice for quote-mining. This is a man who dedicated an entire book to finding meaning and wonder in the universe, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. One quote should suffice to show that Dawkins is entirely capable of finding meaning in this cold, faceless cosmos:

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

The final quote offered by Henderson is slightly more supportive of the argument he is trying to make, but can still be broken down to a point where it too argues for personal, subjective meaning over any ultimate value.

“No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.” (Emphasis mine)
–Edward O. Wilson

Firstly, this does offer a purpose or meaning for humankind, albeit a rather limited and uninspiring one – not that continuing the species is an entirely unpleasant process. But Wilson plainly states that this purpose only applies at the species level. Unfamiliar as I am with Wilson, I cannot say whether or not he would agree that individuals can have whatever purpose they choose, but his comments do not disallow this, and I’m happy to take that position myself.

Henderson next states two possible stances that atheists can take regarding a moral foundation, a socio-biological evolutionary approach and a logical approach. The short version is that is it not his readers who are guilty of strawmanning. Read his article and draw your own conclusions about the necessity of atheists taking up these positions in their attempt at “continuing the delusion of objective morality.” Once again, our definitions of “objective morality” are causing a divergent conversation. A particularly telling point about his comment is the scoffing way in which he notes that, “All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views.” Why not assume this, at least provisionally, and wait for the results of taking this line of reasoning? To quote Sam Harris, to ask why human thriving is superior to human suffering is to, “hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” Henderson may wish to argue that there is no objective difference, as far as the human perspective is concerned, between a world of maximal human flourishing and maximal human suffering, but he might not appreciate just how this would make him look.

As the title states, I do agree with Henderson on particular points. I agree that inherent meaning does not exist, and I agree that objective meaning and morality, in the sense he is using, do not exist. The problem lies in his utter disregard for human agency in matters of meaning and morality, and in his assumption that objective has some abstract, higher meaning – meaning apparently unaffected by being the subjective judgement of the personal being in which, given he is a pastor, I assume Henderson believes. Again accepting his inaccurate definition of “atheist”, a materialistic and scientific nonbeliever is perfectly capable of ascribing any meaning to anything they wish, and can also make a good faith attempt to reach an objective morality that benefits their fellow primates, rather than merely enforcing the diktats of the god du jour (mixing non-English loan-words FTW). Because the dirty little secret of Henderson’s argument is that not only does he fail to discredit the ability of atheists to find meaning and morality, but he fails to notice that his own worldview fails to make this possible. Morality does not become objective because the one passing along the message is all-powerful, and meaning becomes merely impersonal and imposed if it must conform to the divine will. And to quote Henderson for a final time, “How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.”

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