10 Questions Every Atheist Must Answer

I found the following 10 questions on the blog of Rob Robinson, a Christian apologist.  I’ve been banned from making comments on his site, but that doesn’t mean I cannot make my own posts about his nonsense.

Rob seems to think that I need to be able to provide answers to these questions in order to remain an atheist, or to be justified in being an atheist.  I’d like to start by saying that my atheism is, for the most part, no contingent on any of these questions.  Even if I cannot answer these questions it does not follow that God (specifically the Christian God) is the answer.

I’ll attempt to offer answers where  I can, and try to direct you to reasonable scientific resources where I can.  Before we start, I’d like to address a point he makes very early in his post:

The basic nature of the universe, earth, and human life, cannot be explained by any naturalistic process.

How did Robinson determine this?  All I see here is an argument from ignorance.  If science has not yet found a natural explanation for these things (I do reject the assertion that the Earth cannot be explained by natural processes, as we have a pretty good model for how solar systems form), this only means that there are gaps in our understanding of reality.  There will always be something we don’t understand, and if you want to jam your God into these gaps then your God will simply become less and less useful as science finds answers to these mysteries.  I’d also like to point out that we do not solve mysteries by appealing to even bigger mysteries. Not having natural answers doesn’t mean that supernatural answers are correct.

Now let’s get to the questions.  I’m going to break this post into three parts, due to the size of the content, and so that I can address the points better, and so that we aren’t dealing with too many topics at once.

(1.) Since time, space, and matter did not exist before the universe began, where did these things come from to make the universe?

I’m not even sure your question is coherent.  If time did not exist, how does the concept of “before” even make sense?  If space did not exist, how does the concept of “where” make sense?  I’ve written about the cosmological argument before, so you can read that if you want to know more about my position.  My short answer is that I don’t believe that the universe “began to exist”, so the whole question is nonsense.  Cosmological arguments aren’t terribly convincing.

(2.) Since there were no physical laws before the universe, what force controlled the universe to exact a specific outcome to allow for life? Gravity, electromagnetism, entropy, and the distribution of matter, all require precise control at the beginning or the universe would have collapsed back upon itself. If not God, and seeing that the laws of physics did not exist, what force acted upon these imperative forces to cause then to be set precisely where they needed to be to sustain life, 13.7 billion years later?

Again, I don’t know that the statement “there were no physical laws before the universe” is even a coherent statement.  This is really more of the same as the previous question, and asks us to evaluate more cosmological quandaries.

I’d like to point out that I don’t know if your statement that “gravity, electromagnetism, entropy, and the distribution of matter, all require precise control at the beginning or the universe would have collapsed back upon itself” is actually true. Cosmic Inflation Theory explains some of this, but not all.  No scientists will tell you that every mystery of the early universe has been solved, and even if we have no answer to these mysteries, appealing to an even bigger mystery does not help solve the problem.  Instead of one problem you now have an even harder problem to solve.

(3.) The universe began with an extreme low state of entropy. Mathematical Physicists, Sir Roger Penrose said that the only possibility that this could have taken place is if an intelligence acted upon the expansion to cause a low state of entropy. Given the conditions that were present at the commencement of the universe, scientists would have expected a very high state of entropy. How is this possible if the universe evolved on its own?

I have to say that I think it’s really interesting that you claim that Roger Penrose, who is an atheist, thinks that the only possible answer is an intelligence.  I strongly suspect that this is a quote mine, but since you’ve offered no sources, or even a quote for that matter, I can’t accept accept what you’ve stated.

I’m not a scientist, but if this is a puzzle it’s a puzzle for scientists to work out.  Jumping up and down claiming “God caused this” is little more than an assertion, and one that isn’t justified yet.  Again, even if it is the case the fact that we don’t understand something that is not evidence for any god(s), and is simply an argument from ignorance.

The first three questions haven’t been very interesting.  The first two seem to make the assumption that there was something “before” the universe, which I can’t even say is a coherent concept.  All of these questions, so far, would amount to a god of the gaps if you wanted to use them as arguments for any god.

To be continued…

1000 Scientists Sign Dissent From Darwin Petition

The Discovery Institute has updated their “Dissent from Darwinpetition and they have apparently gotten over 1000 signatories.  For those unfamiliar, the petition says:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

There are a few things I’d like to point out about this petition, and the problems I have with it:

The most glaring problem with this petition is that most of the signatories aren’t even biologist, or in a field related to biology.  That in itself should be a major red flag to anybody looking at this.  I plan to spend a few hours looking over the 25 pages to try and figure out approximately how many of these signatories are actually biologists, or in biology related fields.  I suspect the number is somewhere around 30%, just from a cursory glance.

The second thing that should be striking is the exact wording of the petition.  Nowhere does it say that the signer actually considers evolution false, or that they consider Neo-Darwian evolution to be incapable of explaining the diversity of life.  All the petition says is that the signer is skeptical (which frankly, should be the position of scientists in regard to every theory in science).  I seriously wonder how many of these signatories actually dispute the explanatory power and models of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory?

Third, the number of signatories represents a tiny fraction of the scientists who do accept that Evolution explains the diversity of life that we see around us.  The last survey done on the subject, only 9 years ago, showed that 97% of scientists accept that humans, and all other species, evolved over time.

Fourth, this amounts to little more than an argument from authority.  Science isn’t determined by what scientists think, but rather what can be established using the scientific method that finds its way into peer reviewed scientific journals.  These journals represent the accumulated human knowledge through the scientific method.  If you want to change science you need to publish in credible journals, not through petitions.

Fifth, let’s assume that this whole thing is on the up-and-up, and that there is a huge movement of credible scientists who do not accept Evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life.  What then?  Does this make Intelligent Design (ID) a more credible explanation?  No, because ID is still pseudoscience.  Does this make Christianity more plausible?  No, because Christianity was never plausible to begin with.  Even if the theory of Evolution is falsified tomorrow, it doesn’t make any other theory more probably, and any other explanation still needs to have good models, with confirmed testable predictions, in order to be accepted as a scientific theory.

I think it’s rather sad that the Discovery Institute spends so much effort on trying to undermine a well established scientific theory, and does nothing to actually contribute to the field of science.  They don’t go out and get their work published in scientific journals.  They don’t go out and actually try to build credible theories that offer good explanations. They simply work to create a campaign of disinformation.

Am I worried about the status of Evolution?  Not at all.  Even if the Theory of Evolution fails, I’ll still be an atheist, because my atheism is not tied to evolution being true.  Why creationists spend so much time trying to undermine evolution is beyond me.

Response To A Fundamentalist Christian Apologist

“I have published dozens of articles and two books on the scientific evidence for a universe that exists by intelligence. I would recommend that you read them but I have noticed that when I have suggested this in the past, you have ignored my encouragement.”  — Robert Clifton Robinson, in his reply comment to me in his post Slavery Can Be A Really Good Thing.

Frankly, Mr Christian apologist, the fact that you’ve written two books (anybody can write a book and get it published), and dozens of articles (I have a blog too), on the “scientific evidence for a universe that exists by intelligence”, is of little concern to me. I believe you lead the evidence to your preferred conclusion, rather than following it, as good scientists do. As yet there is no scientific consensus about what you claim, and scientists have yet to come out to say that the evidence tells us that any gods exist, or that the universe is the result of some supernatural intelligence.  Maybe they will one day, but they have not yet.

I suspect I know what you’ll say about the fact that scientists haven’t come out and admitted that the evidence doesn’t lead to your conclusion:  That the scientists are all atheists, and they’d rather sin than acknowledge a creator.  I’ve heard this too many times from fundamentalist Christians.

But please tell me how many of these articles have you submitted for peer review to scientists? How many of these articles have been published in credible, peer reviewed, journals?  For the record, I’m not talking about meaningless creationist journals like “Answers Research Journal“, or predatory pay-to-publish journals where anyone can publish their nonsense for a between $200 to $2000.  What have actual scientists said about your so-called articles?  If you ever submitted them, I’m willing to bet that they’d end up in the bin.

I’m also curious, Christian apologists, what credentials you have in the area of science.  You claim you’re using scientific evidence to establish that the universe required an intelligent creator, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve had very little, if any, scientific training.  What degrees have you earned, in what fields, and from what accredited learning institutions?  How many years have you worked in the field of science that you think you have enough background to even sit at the same table as scientists, or even try to contribute to science?  Looking at your “about” page, I see nothing about any of your credentials, even as a theologian.

So please tell me why I, or anybody else, should invest any time to consider your “scientific evidence” when you are almost certainly not an expert in the subject, or demonstrated yourself to other experts?

Science Doesn’t Distinguish Between “Historical” And “Observational”

A charge I’ve heard from some apologists (like Frank Turek and Ken Ham) is that there are fundamentally two different kinds of science.  There’s “historical” (sometimes called “forensic”) science, which deals with science claims of the past, and “observational” (sometimes called “empirical”) science, which deals with what we can observe. I think the fundamental reason that religious apologists make this nonsense claim is so that they can discredit the science that they fundamentally disagree with (like evolution), while still holding onto the science that they do agree with (like the germ theory of disease.)  I’d like to take a tiny bit to address this claim, and try to explain why it’s nonsense.

All science deals with empirical evidence, because that is what science does.  Science is a rational method of investigating natural causes by examining empirical evidence.  Regardless of whether science is investigating the diversity of life, or why the planets move the way that they do, empirical evidence is all that matters.

Nothing In Science Is Provable

One of the first things I want to get out of the way is that science doesn’t actually prove anything.  Only mathematics and logic can actually prove anything, because that is how analytic systems work.  You start with something and try to show what can be logically deduced from your premises.  Valid logical with sound premises means that your conclusion is sound.  Science, on the other hand, being empirical in nature, can’t do that.  Science has to work with induction, and simply doesn’t have the ability to prove anything.

What is important to realize is that while science cannot prove anything, it does give us incredible confidence that its theories, and surrounding facts, are very likely to be true, even if we cannot be 100% sure that the theories are correct.

All Conclusions In Science Are Tentative

Nothing in science is absolute, and no theory is beyond question, because we’re dealing with inductive conclusions, rather than deductive ones.  There simply is no current theory of science that couldn’t (at least hypothetically) be falsified tomorrow with some new data. Why? Because models are a simplification for how reality actually is, and can never be complete. Even the most solid theories we have could be overturned tomorrow with one new piece of evidence that falsifies the theory.

That said, a lot of work has gone into testing every current theory of science, and to make sure that the evidence supports the models.  This is why peer review, and replication, are so critical to science.  If honest scientists, working with what you’ve published, can’t reproduce what you claim to have produced, then your findings should be considered to be in error.

Conclusion

There really is no difference between the science that built the theory that germs are the cause of diseases, and the theory that the diversity of life can be explained by the genetic variations between organisms and that these variations can (largely) be explained by natural selection and mutations.  Both of these theories are built upon models, and the testing of these models.  The theory of evolution stands on over 150 years of hard work done by scientists to support the theory, and that support is now pretty much universal.

The only people who are trying to push the idea that science makes any distinction between “historical” science and “empirical” science are religious apologists, and pseudo-scientists  who are trying to confuse the subject.  These people aren’t interested in real science, or giving out good information.  Their goal is to convince you that you have good reasons to believe their nonsense, and get you to reject solid science.

Please, dear reader, there is no reason (yet) to accept supernatural claims.  Take my advice and please stop listening to religious apologists.  They have very little to offer you.

Investigating The Resurrection

Christians love to assert that the evidence leads them to believe that Jesus really was God, and that he was raised (supernaturally) from the dead.  I’d like to take a look at this and investigate some other possibilities, one natural and one supernatural.

The main problem with supernatural explanations is that we have no way to confirm that any of them are right; We are, effectively, stuck with no reliable way to confirm supernatural causation.  This leaves us in a little bit of an epistemic pickle when it comes to accepting the “Jesus is God” hypothesis, unless one makes some really big assumptions.  One has to assume that God exists, that God has the power to raise Jesus, that God can incarnate itself as a human, that Jesus’ death can serve atonement for sins, and that God would want to do any of these things.  None of these can be known.

Possible Supernatural Alternative

The first I’d like to examine the possibility that the movie Highlander is roughly true.  For those unfamiliar, the Highlander is a movie about a bunch of immortal warriors who battle it out to become the last of their race, and the winner gets the prize of enslaving humanity.  Each of the warriors can only be killed through decapitation.  Let’s ignore the bit about enslaving the human race, and just focus on the idea of immortal warriors who can only be killed by decapitation.  If this is true then it’s quite possible Jesus actually understood that he was going to be killed, but that his body would magically recover.  If he made predictions about his resurrection, it could be that these predictions were based on his understanding of his special physiology. Being put on the cross is of little concern because it’s unlikely that he’d die by decapitation.

The most obvious problem with this hypothesis is that we have no reason to believe that immortal alien warriors, who only die by decapitation, even exist. Even so, I would charge that we also don’t know that any gods exist, or that any gods can incarnate themselves into humans, making both supernatural hypotheses implausible.  Until we actually have good reason to believe that either of these scenarios is even possible, what reason should we ever have to accept that they are possible, let alone plausible, explanations for the Easter story?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t accept that the supernatural exists, or that it has any causal power in our universe.  Until somebody can actually establish this, I axiomatically rule out all supernatural explanations as being impossible, because the basis for them has not yet been established.  If you can establish the “supernatural”, and show that it really does have the kinds of causal powers needed, I’d love to see you do this.

Possible Natural Alternative

I think there are lots of possible natural alternatives to the resurrection. I think all of them are reasonably implausible, but I do content that many of them are vastly more likely than any supernatural explanation. Here’s one natural alternative I’d like to considered: Roman conspiracy.

Consider this.  The Gospels tell us that Pilate could see no reason to find Jesus guilty.  We also know, from other sources, that Pilate was terribly unsympathetic to the Jewish authorities, and would often do exactly the opposite of what they wanted.  Consider this: What if Pilate actually offered Jesus a way to possibly live though his ordeal?  Pilate has Jesus scourged, and put up on the cross, but the scourging was not too severe.  Jesus is then put on the cross, and Pilate also ordered Jesus taken down early when Jesus feigns death.  The soldiers have been ordered to pull him down, put him in a cloth, and hand him over to Jews.  Jesus is then moved by cart to the tomb, by the Jewish authorities.

Darkness then comes along, and suddenly it’s the Sabbath. The Romans, not being Jewish, have no reason to obey the Sabbath and open up the tomb, and bring Jesus back to Pilate’s estate, where he is cleaned up, and given medical attention.  After a day Jesus, on the Sunday Morning, Jesus is now instructed by Pilate to leave the country, and to never return under the threat of a long, and painful, execution. Jesus agrees with this demand, and plans to go east.

When Jesus leaves passed by the tomb, and notices a woman who shows up to prepare his body.  That woman is Mary Magdalene, who he greets, and tells her that he’s returned, but that he has to leave.  She’s confused, scared, and doesn’t understand.  She runs away to tell the other disciples.  At this point Jesus leaves the country and is never seen again.

The disciples, having heard that Jesus was seen alive, are also very confused, and still distraught at the death of their friend.  The travel to the tomb, and find that it’s now empty, but they understand that he was killed by the Romans.  Shortly after this they begin having dreams, and other types of hallucinations, that Jesus is visiting them. In one of the dreams, several weeks, or even months, later, Jesus tells Peter that he’s been resurrected by God, and that Peter is to preach this message to everyone who will listen.  Peter begins to preach that Jesus is the raised messiah.  Other people, including the other disciples, begin having visions, dreams, and other hallucinations, that Jesus is visiting them.  All the while Jesus, living in another country, has no idea what’s been happening.  As time passes more and more legendary parts are added to the story, and it slowly changes until we have the gospel stories.

Now, I want to point out that I think this story is an extremely unlikely natural explanation for what happened.  That said, I think it’s almost infinitely more probable than the idea that God, who we don’t know exists or even can raise people from the dead, is the explanation.  It’s also extremely ad hoc, and we have no little reason to believe that Pilate would ever do such a thing.  That said, if Pilate wanted to mess with the Jewish authorities, this might be a way to make it happen.

Now, please, tell me.  What is it about this, and all other, naturalistic explanations,  makes it so much more unlikely that the idea of an unknowable supernatural, all knowing, all powerful, immaterial, space-less, timeless, God becoming human to die for our sins is so much more likely?  I really do have a hard time accepting that the Christian explanation is the best one.

My Biggest Frustration With Many Christians

If I had to point to one thing that I find incredibly frustrating in dealing with Christians about their beliefs is how seriously convicted they are about their beliefs, and how few will ever ask questions to actually understand what point your trying to make.  As far as they’re concerned you’re wrong, and they have already found Truth™.

There Is A Difference Between Confidence And Knowledge

I cannot stress this enough.  Just because you are extremely confident about your beliefs does not mean that your beliefs are something that is considered knowledge.  All of the confidence in the world that you’re going to go to heaven after you die, or that the world is only 6,000 years old, does not justify those beliefs.  You can have all the confidence in the world and still be wrong!  As Hume pointed out over 200 years ago, “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”, and there is very little that we should have complete confidence in!

What I’d Like To See Change

If I could change anything it would be to have people be more willing to ask questions when they are engaged in dialogue.  It’s like people don’t understand that asking honest questions of your interlocutor can help shed light on what they’re saying.  Being frustrated because the person you’re talking to doesn’t seem to care at all about what you’re saying makes having a conversation painful, and almost impossible to determine what you believe, and why.

Why do I care?  Because I genuinely want to know if any gods exist, and if any person actually has a reliable means of knowing that any gods exist.  While I would accept that a god does exist, I doubt I would join any religious sect, but I really do want to know if what you believe is actually true.  Even more than that, I want this to be a two way street.  I want you to be willing to consider my point of view, and consider the possibility that you’re wrong in what you believe.  Be intellectually honest, and be skeptical about what you believe.

The Moral Argument For God

While not as popular as other arguments, the moral argument is one that I do encounter relatively frequently, either informally with statements like “morality cannot be explained without God”, or more formally with the moral argument which goes:

1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist
3. Therefore God does exist

It’s a fairly simple argument, but one which presents several problems, which I want to go over in this post.

Is Morality Objective?

This is really the million dollar question.  As somebody who holds to consequentialism, I hold that our moral judgements can be objective, but our moral values are ultimately subjective.  Let me try to explain using an analogy:  Suppose that I want to put a screw into a block of wood. If that is my goal then there are objectively good ways to achieve that goal, and objective poor ways to achieve that goal.  If you don’t believe me on this, try putting a screw into a block of wood with a hammer, or a paint brush, versus using a screwdriver of the correct type.  The judgement over whether some action is good at putting screws into a block of wood is objective.  The desire, or goal, to put screws into a block of wood is subjective.

If we’re talking about the values that give us the ability to form moral judgements, then I don’t see how we can be talking about something that is objective. It’s simply not possible. We desire to be healthy, and happy,  but these desires represent our subjective preference. Please note that our values being subjective does not, in any way, imply that moral values are completely arbitrary!  It’s not arbitrary that we want to survive, given that we’ve evolved, and that we have evolved as a social species, over millions of years, to work with others for survival, and that because of this we share many common moral values.  If I want to continue to survive, I really do depend on others and others depend on me.  I don’t want to put my survival into the hands of somebody who is not interested in either mine, or their own, survival.  Please don’t post anything in the comments about how subjectivity means that morality is completely arbitrary, because this is simply a non-sequitur.

What Does Morality Mean To Me

When I’m talking about morality I’m almost always talking about how we, as humans, judge human actions for their consequences with respect to human well being, and suffering. Actions which cause unnecessary suffering are generally called “evil”, and actions which promote well being are called “good.”  I believe this to be consistent with the how the vast majority of humans evaluate morality, even if they don’t consciously recognize this.

Morality Is Not Intrinsic To The Universe

When I talk to some Christians about “objective morality”, they seem to believe that there is something intrinsic about certain actions that makes them good or evil.  I don’t see how this can be the case, and it makes no sense.  It’s like they believe that genocide is wrong because there’s some ethereal force in the universe that makes it wrong.  That even if there were no humans left in the universe, genocide would still be wrong.  I can’t quite express how misguided I think this idea is.

I’m going to come out right here and state, unequivocally, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with genocide.  I do believe that genocide is wrong, but it is not intrinsically wrong, because such an idea is absurd.  The only thing that makes morality happen is our subjective desire for survival, health, and happiness.  That’s it.  Morality is not some framework built into reality, or a force that makes things right or wrong.

The First Premise Is A Non-Sequitur

The first premise of the argument gets us off on the wrong foot right at the outset.  Even if God does exist, how does that make moral values and duties objective?  How does the existence of God have the power to make our subjective values become objective, and binding?  I really don’t understand this kind of thinking, because even if God does exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.  It’s really that simple folks.  The fact that we have morality says nothing about the existence of any gods, let alone the God of Christianity.

I’d also like to point out that this problem has been known about, for over 2400 years, in the form of the Euthyphro dilemma:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

If the former is true, then God is unnecessary for morality and we can appeal to whatever standard God is using.  If the latter then morality is simply arbitrary.  Attempts to split the horns by appealing to something like “God’s natural”, then we simply end up with the same kind of dilemma.

The Second Premise Is An Assertion

A one that I think is false to begin with. As I’ve stated above, moral values are not objective.  This premise is, as far as I can tell, an assertion with little to no basis in reality. Knowing what I do about Christian apologetics, this is hardly a surprise.  They’re willing to assert just about anything they can in order to try and justify their belief in God, no matter how silly it is.  After all, apologetics isn’t meant to convert those who are not Christian, but to keep those who are Christian inside the fold.

My Challenge

If you are a Christian moral realist, and you believe that moral values are actually objective, can you prove it, and not make any references to God (which would make the moral argument circular)? How do you go about this?  If so, please, tell me what it means to say that moral values are objective, and how you know this to be true.  Assuming you can do this, tell me how these “objective moral values” are only explainable by your God?