17 March 2012

"5 Questions Every Intelligent Atheist Must Answer".... answered

Note to readers: this is another post from my previous blog, The Apostasy, published in 2009. I'm continuing to clear out the archives before I delete the blog entirely. Unfortunately, this one is based on a video that's no longer up. But the questions are verbatim.

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I've seen a million of these little lists, but this one was different... because it's a video, not just a list of questions. The author actually takes the time to explain why each question is valid, and despite demonstrating an elementary misunderstanding of some basic scientific and logical principles, he does a good job explaining why he's skeptical of an atheistic world view. So, without further ado, here is the video, followed by my answers:



Question #1: You accuse Christians of using "God of the Gaps" to explain things we don't know; but aren't atheists just using "chance" in the exact same way?

No, we're not. First, it's important to understand why the "God of the Gaps" fallacy is in fact a logical fallacy. If we were living in the 11th century and I said, "We have no scientific, rational, logical explanation for why objects fall to the ground — it must be because God pulls them to the ground!", I would be guilty of creating a false dilemma, saying that only God could explain such a thing. But why "God"? Why not, for example, super-intelligent alien beings from a parallel dimension? The Flying Spaghetti Monster is an atheist polemic device used to illustrate this precise fallacy. How would you know it was "God", and not the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or any other arbitrary thing you can imagine)? "God did it" is not a falsifiable hypothesis. There is no way to prove or disprove the "theory" that God pulls things to the ground.

Probability, on the other hand, works on mathematical formulas and observable, empirical evidence that can be proved or disproved. "Chance" and "randomness" are really just colloquialisms that describe varying degrees of probability. Furthermore, atheists are not suggesting that "chance" in itself accounts for anything at all as if it were some mystical universal force of causality, but rather that the laws of science allow for varying degrees of probability within certain parameters. You accept that there is a certain statistical probability of being in a fatal collision every time you drive your car; that doesn't mean that chance itself causes fatal collisions.

The God of the Gaps argument is simply the assertion of an arbitrarily chosen unfalsifiable hypothesis when no falsifiable hypothesis is known. So, for example, while someone may assert that God created life simply because the precise chain of chemical reactions required to create the first nucleic acids is not yet known, it is fully valid to accept that, given the laws of chemistry, there is a reasonable probability of nucleic acids arising from certain chemical reactions that would have taken place in primordial conditions. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no way to prove or disprove that God instantaneously defied the laws of chemistry and created life. Even if such a magical event occurred, maybe it was the Invisible Pink Unicorn or extra-dimensional aliens. How would we prove it was "God"?



Question #2: Why Should There Be Something Instead of Nothing?

The question assumes that "why" is a valid and necessary component of rational understanding. But let's take it back a step: Why should there be a God? Why does God exist? Invoking God as a creator creates an infinite regress — it begs the question, "what created God?" If one can assert that God simply "is" and does not need to be created, they are simply arbitrarily stopping the infinite regress at "God"; it would be just as easy, and just as logical, to say that the thing that created God does not need to be created, and so on ad infinitum. Why not save oneself the infinite regress and simply assume, until evidence demands otherwise, that the universe itself simply "is"?

And, point of fact, the idea of a universe that simply "is" is an idea supported with some empirical evidence in modern theoretical physics, as described by Stephen Hawking in his famous book A Brief History of Time.

Sub-questions:
"Also, the world seems to have been fixed, somehow, to make life possible."

Consider that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. That 99.9% of every species that has ever lived has died out. That Earth can support life on some of its surface some of the time, but that every species, including our own, is on a knife's edge of survival. Consider that in a few hundred million years, there won't be enough oxygen left in the atmosphere to support life on Earth. Consider that in another 5 billion years or so, our planet will be consumed by the sun as it runs out of hydrogen and expands into a massive, cooler Red Giant.

Now, consider that life can arise in the mostly unlikely of places: bacteria can survive in hydrochloric acid; that creatures live in the sea by hydrothermal vents in complete darkness, extreme heat and immense pressure. From ExtremeScience.com:

Scientists have gone down to explore and study these deep ocean hydrothermal vents and were completely surprised to find the areas immediately around the vents teeming with abundant life. The temperature of the water coming out of the vents has been measured at the source and it varies from just 68 degrees to as much as 600 degrees Fahrenheit. At sea level, water reaches the boiling point at 225 degrees Fahrenheit, but down in the deep ocean around hydrothermal vents where the water can reach well over the boiling point, the water coming out of the vents doesn’t boil! What prevents the scalding hot seawater from boiling (turning into vapor) is the extreme hydrostatic pressure of all the overlying water. What surprised scientists was that there was an entire ecosystem, a community of diverse life forms, absolutely thriving in conditions that were previously thought to be inhospitable to any kind of life.

The point is, the Earth is not adapted to us. We, and all life, are adapted to Earth. It may be exceedingly improbable that life like ours would arise. But clearly, it's quite possible, and probable enough to have happened.

"Biological life itself bears the marks itself of intelligent design."

Biological life bears the mark of genetic adaptation and natural selection. The notion that it was crafted by an ethereal intelligence is unfalsifiable.



Question #3: Where do you get your morals from?

Where do you get your syntax from? Sheesh. Talk about unnecessary prepositions. Seriously though. There are two things worth addressing here: one is the biological and sociological foundation of moral behavior; and the other is the implication that "God" accounts for moral order and is, in some way, the source and guiding force of this order.


Moral behavior did indeed evolve as an adaptive mechanism. As Frans De Waal said in his book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, free and equal people never existed. We are and have always been bonded, interdependent and unequal (note: this is "unequal" in a sense of biological fitness, not in a sense of moral value). For us, as with millions of other species, cooperative group living is not a choice but a survival strategy. None of us have the luxury of moral autonomy because we are inexorably dependent on our ability to cooperate with one another for our physical and emotional well-being, and indeed our very survival as a species.

So, that may be where morals "come from", but as the author says, morality is a judgment about how we "ought" to behave, not merely a description of past behavior. The atheist indeed has no infallible, absolute source of morality — but neither does the believer. Our ideas about how we ought to behave are rooted in our biology, but evolve through complex social norms — what Richard Dawkins describes as the "shifting moral zeitgeist." We do not derive our morals "from" some external, ethereal source; rather, our moral norms evolve through millenia of cooperative group living.

There is perhaps no finer example of this shifting moral zeitgeist than the Bible itself. By modern standards, slavery is widely regarded as a crime against humanity. But in the Bible, slavery is not only condoned, but commissioned, and slaves are dehumanized to the point of being mere property. In the Bible, a woman is obligated to marry a man who rapes her. God commands acts of genocide against entire cities, and only virgin women are to be spared, kept as loot.

Moral behavior has changed not because of religion, but often despite it. What we call "morality" is ultimately a sociological outgrowth of emotionally driven behavioral impulses that are biologically hard-wired through evolution and natural selection. It's beyond the scope of this blog to discuss the sociological mechanisms of the evolution of moral norms. I'll provide a reading list at the end of this blog and include some books that shed light on the issue.


The other notable issue though is the implication that only God can be the arbiter of our morality. Here's the problem: God is invisible, and does not speak to people collectively. If someone claims God spoke to them, we pretty much just have to take them at their word. No one, not even Christians (all 33,000+ denominations of them), can agree on exactly what God is or what God wants. So even if you think God bestows moral guidance upon us, we still have to talk with one another.



Question #4: How Did Morals Evolve?

Firstly, there are a great many books written by evolutionary biologists on the evolution of morality. I will include some of my favorites in the reading list at the end of this blog. Explaining the mechanisms of moral evolution is beyond the scope of this blog and frankly not something I am qualified to do, being that I'm not actually an evolutionary biologist. Instead, I'd like to address some of the fallacies in the description of the question, namely this:

There is something in us that is self-consciously aware of the process of evolution, that understands what the goal of evolution is — survival of our own species — and instructs us through our conscience to fulfill the optimal conditions for our survival."

As I stated earlier, what we call "morality" is ultimately a sociological outgrowth of emotionally driven behavioral impulses that are biologically hard-wired through evolution and natural selection. We are not consciously aware of these impulses; for example, if we see a child standing in a busy intersection, our instinct will be to rush to the child's rescue. We do not stand there and rationalize the pros and cons of various possible outcomes, but act instinctively and impulsively. Our empathetic emotional responses are hard-wired by natural selection.

"There are two cavemen in neighboring villages. One kills the other in cold blood. We're supposed to believe that he feels guilt because such an act ultimately undermines his own survival?"

Nothing about evolutionary and sociological models of morality suggest anything of the sort. Firstly, it's quite an assumption to assume he would feel guilt; many people — sociopaths — feel no such empathy. But empathy itself is indeed hardwired in our biology, and integral to our ability to cooperate with one another and thus benefit our survival. (The evolution of empathy is discussed in numerous books I will provide in the list.) If our murderous cavemen felt guilt, it would be because his empathetic instincts — the same ones that have been invaluable assets in our survival as a species — caused an emotional response to his behavior. It is also likely that an empathetic response is reinforced by the culture at large, further compounding the feeling of "guilt".

"In the rest of the animal kingdom, killing the opposition seems to secure just the opposite."

I hate to be crass, but this demonstrates an absolutely befuddling ignorance of animal behavior. Virtually all modern animals — primates in particular — are gregarious, cooperative, interdependent creatures that have, in countless studies, displayed emotional responses consistent with our own empathetic instincts. Wolves and lions travel in packs. Primates live in communities. All such animals share resources and protect one another. Where on earth did our author get this preposterous idea that animals benefit from randomly killing each other? Survival of the fittest applies to groups, not merely individuals.



Question #5: Can nature generate complex organisms in the sense of originating it, when previously there was none?

The theory of evolution explains the diversity and complexity of biological organisms. It's not my, nor anyone else's, job to educate our author on how evolution works as there are innumerable resources available to inquisitive minds.

Evolution is not, however, the theory of the origin of life. That is abiogenesis. Again, it's beyond my qualifications and the scope of this blog to explain how abiogenesis works. A couple of points are worth mentioning though. Firstly, if the foundation for one's faith rests upon the notion that science will never find a theory that fully explains the exact sequence of chemical reactions that led to the first biological organisms, I would say that such faith is on precarious grounds indeed. Science has a remarkable track record of "filling the gaps". After all, that is precisely what science attempts to do! And secondly, while scientists are busy researching falsifiable hypotheses about the origins of life, simply asserting that "God did it" is wholly unfalsifiable and arbitrary. We might as well assert that the Invisible Pink Unicorn did it.

Wrapping it up...

This video reinforces what, in my mind, is the core difference between a blind believer and a skeptic: the ability to critically examine one's own ideas. The author seems to gain a sense of contentment, for example, from the fact that the theory of abiogenesis is incomplete or that we do not yet have a full understanding of the origin of the universe. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, believers and skeptics both love the gaps, but for different reasons. Believers love them because they seem like a nice place to put "God did it". Skeptics, however, love the gaps because it's an opportunity to learn more about our world. When a skeptic sees a gap in science — such as the origin of the universe or the origin of life — the conversation is just beginning. When a believer sees a gap, the conversation is over.


"I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." - Richard Dawkins



Further reading:

1. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans De Waal

2. The Blind Watchmaker: How the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a World Without Design by Richard Dawkins

3. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser

4. The Naked Ape Trilogy by Desmond Morris

5. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

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