10 Answers from an Atheist… [part 1/2]

Recently Alison gave her answers to the 10 Questions for the Atheist from the web site LifeWay. Since I’ve answered this sort of thing before, I decided to have another go at it.

But before we start, a word on their definition of atheism:

Atheism, by definition, holds that there is no God and nothing beyond this world of matter, space, time, and energy.

We already have another word for that, it’s called “materialist.” Atheists are not beholden to hold to any positive claim about whether there is something “beyond this world” (whatever that means exactly). There are atheists who believe in supernatural things like souls, ghosts, weird energies, and so on. So we have to assume that their whole set of questions here is not actually about atheists at all, but rather about materialists.

That being said, I am a materialist, so I have no objection in continuing.

1. Creation
The overwhelming consensus of science is that the entire cosmos (including space and time) came into existence at a finite point in the past. All of our observations, equations, and physical laws testify to a point of origin for this universe.
In light of the troubling evidence for a beginning, and that we may not even be able to find a natural cause in principle, what explanation is given to the questions, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Where did it all come from?”

As I’ve answered in the past, asking “why is there something rather than nothing” is a fallacious question since “is” implies existence and “nothing” implies non-existence. It’s a question that Christians like to ask because it’s by definition unanswerable, not because atheists have no ready answer but because the question itself is contradictory. It’s like asking “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” to shut someone up: the question is contradictory (insofar as the person questioned does not actually beat his wife) but there’s no good way to answer except “the question is fallacious.”

The question “where did it all come from” is rather puzzling, since we have already established that they are asking questions to people who believe that there is nothing “beyond this world of matter, space, time, and energy.” Therefore the answer must logically be “it comes from this world of matter, space, time, and energy.”

It is not clear here if the “all” in “where did it all come from” refers to all matter or only this observable universe. If it refers to all matter, then the answer must be “it doesn’t come from anywhere, it has always existed” since all matter is everything there is, from the materialist standpoint.

Note that this is not my personal opinion, but a simple, direct deduction that follows from their own definition of “atheist.” One can answer the question posed by simply using their own words. Whether they’d like those answers or not is another matter (no pun intended). But if they had an issue with these deduction, then they should have asked more pointed questions, instead of the commonplace generalities they went with. “Why is there something rather than nothing” and “where did it all come from” are extremely vague and general questions which do not touch to the core of anything important or valuable for the materialist. However, because of Christian projection, asking a Christian these questions is much more interesting: a Christian can have no non-trivial answer to “why is there something rather than nothing” (because God got bored, or wanted little toys to play with?) and “where did it all come from” (some supernatural dimension? somewhere in space?).

2. Order
The past several decades have added profoundly to our knowledge of chemistry, physics, and cosmology. It has become increasingly clear that we live in a universe finely tuned for the support of complex life. This fact is so universally acknowledged that even secular scientists have coined the term “Anthropic Principle” to describe it.
How is it that we live in such an exquisitely fine-tuned universe? Even assuming that the universe could have popped out of nothingness, why should it have been such an orderly and hospitable one? Is there a scientific, testable answer for this question that does not simply appeal to imagination?

First of all, one must point out that LifeWay apparently does not know what the anthropic principle actually is. The anthropic principle does not support the fine-tuning argument at all. What the anthropic principle actually says is this: we live in a universe compatible with our own existence. From the scientific standpoint, it means we can make predictions based on the fact that we exist (because we exist, the parameters of the universe must be hospitable to life).

Creationists use the anthropic principle to argue that the universe was “fine-tuned” by a designer to permit the existence of complex life. Implicit in this argument is the belief that the parameters of the universe could take any quantity. For example, an article by the Creationist outlet Discovery Institute states many instances of what they see as fine-tuning, including gravity:

Calculations by Brandon Carter show that if gravity had been stronger or weaker by 1 part in 1040, then life-sustaining stars like the sun could not exist. This would most likely make life impossible. (Davies, 1984, p. 242.)

And they go on to say:

Imaginatively, one could think of each instance of fine-tuning as a radio dial: unless all the dials are set exactly right, life would be impossible. Or, one could think of the initial conditions of the universe and the fundamental parameters of physics as a dart board that fills the whole galaxy, and the conditions necessary for life to exist as a small one-foot wide target: unless the dart hits the target, life would be impossible.

These quotes clearly illustrate the creationists’ fallacy in their assumption of fine-tuning: they set up a field of possibilities that simply doesn’t exist. Just because we can imagine the gravitational constant being, not 6.674×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, but rather 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, does not mean that it can actually be 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2. Just because we can write it down and make calculations based on it doesn’t mean it’s actually possible. The only way to know what range of values are possible is to gather evidence on how these values came about, i.e. to do actual science instead of being “imaginative” in making up scenarios that are not based on reality. To take the Discovery Institute analogies, there are no dials and there is no dart board, but Creationists surround the target with these imaginary devices out of thin air and scream “AHA! Look how big the board is!”

Once again, this is a case of projection. From the Christian viewpoint, there is a fine-tuning problem because God presumably can choose to make G whatever it wants (or even not make a G at all), and thus for a Christian it should be extremely surprising that our universe is the way it is. From the materialist viewpoint there is no question to answer until it can be demonstrated that the question actually makes sense, and is not just a flight of the imagination. To paraphrase the initial question, “is there a scientific, testable demonstration of fine-tuning that does not simply appeal to imagination?”

As an aside, there has also been a lot of work done by cosmologists on the issue of multiple universes and whether universes with variable parameters could produce life, and they have found that if you treat each parameter as interrelated to the others, as they actually are, and not as independent variables like Creationists do, you end up seeing a lot of viable universes. A materialist who believes in a multiverse model could use this as a further argument against “fine-tuning”; not only is it an imaginary argument, but even if we concede that it’s not imaginary, it’s simply false.

As for the question “why should [the universe] have been such an orderly and hospitable one?”, it should be obvious that the use of “why” presupposes teleology, and therefore a Creator. So this question is entirely circular. There is no purpose for the universe to be the way it is, any more than there is a purpose for the sky to be blue instead of green. We can explain how it came to be hospitable, or how the sky gets to be blue, but there is no “why.”

3. Abiogenesis
The problem of abiogenesis (the origin of the first lifeform) is one of the thorniest and most intractable issues in chemistry. Our increasing knowledge of microbiology and earth history has only added to the complexity of what needs to be explained. The simplest life is equivalent to modern bacteria, which is loaded with complex activity, information, and molecular “machines.” The fossil record does not give evidence that there was a “prebiotic soup,” or that there were any biological precursors to the first organisms, or that the atmosphere was the ideal mix to yield the necessary molecules, or that there was the expected long period of time between when the Earth could support life and when it actually appeared. Evolutionists regularly segregate the abiogenesis problem from the issue of evolution because (1) it is a challenge they’d rather not be saddled with, or (2) it is the most logical point for possible divine intervention. However, for the atheist there is no escaping this issue; they are obliged to seek out some purely natural explanation.
What hope for an explanation do you have? Are you satisfied to have problems like this that are unanswered, or even unanswerable?
In telling the tale of life on earth science writers often unconsciously use the word “miracle” for the appearance of the first organisms.
What kind of evidence is needed before we are to actually accept that something like this really is a miracle?

This question tries to make a case for how “intractable” abiogenesis is. But the fact that a problem is difficult to crack is entirely dependent on your level of intelligence and knowledge. To a cat, “how to open a door” is an “intractable issue.” To humans a century and a half ago, “what is the basic structure of matter” was an “intractable issue.” So the fact that an issue is intractable does not indicate anything about that issue. It is only a statement about ourselves. We may not have enough evidence to get to the solution. There may even be limits on what human intelligence can comprehend, and a problem may remain intractable forever.

But all that means is that our intelligence is finite, not that we are faced with a “miracle” and that we must jump to “divine intervention.” The question posed by Lifeway is merely a modern iteration of the “god of the gaps” argument: “we can’t figure out how abiogenesis actually happened, there is no hope to ever explain it, therefore God did it.” The fact that we are unable to prove which hypothesis of abiogenesis is correct (or even if we were unable to ever prove such) implies nothing about the nature of abiogenesis itself. It speaks only to our own ignorance.

That being said, there are many extremely problematic statements in this question. For instance, the assertion that “the fossil record” does not contain evidence of the origins of life. How in the hell could there be? Fossils form from hard structures like bones or the imprint of organisms in soft soil. Despite the bizarre demand posed by the question against the fossil record, I feel the need to point out that atmospheric conditions and bacteria do not actually fossilize (with some exceptions).

There is also an outright lie, in the statement that “[t]he simplest life is equivalent to modern bacteria.” No abiogenesis hypothesis actually states that the simplest life is as complex as modern bacteria, and if it did, it wouldn’t be a very good hypothesis at all. I suppose one should not be surprised that Creationists lie, since they do so with regularity, but it is particularly egregious here since the lie is necessary for the question to make any sense. If, as most abiogenesis researchers posit, we start from the premise that the first forms of life were simple chains of organic molecules available in areas of the Earth at that time, then the spectacular complexity problem that Creationists set up is shown as a scam.

A Creationist is not likely to be satisfied by my answer, and would say something like “but you don’t KNOW whether that’s how it happened!” That’s true, of course. We don’t know yet how it happened… but neither does the Creationist. Saying “God did it” is not an explanation of cause and effect, it is a statement of belief designed to shut down all doubt and all questions. Therefore, even if we accept the statement that the origins of life is a “miracle,” the question remains unchanged: how did it happen? Even if Christianity was true, the Creationist would be no closer to an answer.

One final point, regarding the “most logical point for possible divine intervention”: one would think rather that the most logical point for divine intervention lies in the incredible survival of god-belief despite its nonsensical nature. And indeed they do ask about this on question 8, as we will see.

4. Transcendent Principles
Logic and mathematics are abstract principles that have been discovered rather than invented. We cannot do science, communicate, or navigate this world without them. They appear to stand outside of nature to describe and measure it. As Albert Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”
What is the source of math and logic? The existence of this remarkably fine-tuned universe aside, how is it that we have these “languages of reality” to so elegantly describe and interact with it?

While it may seem very different indeed, this question is actually very much related to question 2 on fine-tuning, because it participates in the exact same fallacy as fine-tuning. David Mills gives a good analogy for fine-tuning thinking in his book “The Atheist Universe.” A man looks at a map and thinks, “hmm… isn’t it interesting how all the bodies of water are close to so many cities? Isn’t that nice of the water to do that,” until his brain kicks back in gear and realizes that it’s people who have established themselves near water, because they needed water, not the water that moved to accommodate people.

Fine-tuning is the same kind of fallacy. A person might go “hmm… isn’t it interesting how the universe and the Earth seems made to accommodate us specifically as complex life forms? Isn’t that nice of the universe to do that,” until they realize that it’s us humans that have evolved in that universe and biologically adapted to its parameters, not the reverse.

The same principle applies to Lifeway’s astonishment at how nicely “tuned” logic and mathematics are to our understanding of the universe. To them, there is something fishy with the fact that logic and mathematics are such great tools to describe the universe, therefore the universe must have been made to fit them. The universe was made comprehensible (dixit the Einstein quote, misused of course) by God so that we may understand it with logic and mathematics. But this is the wrong way of going at it. It is our understanding of logic and mathematics which was molded by the universe’s particular kind of order, not the reverse.

So what is the source of logic and mathematics? Like all other concepts, they stem from our observations of reality. For mathematics, all you need is the concept of the unit and addition/substraction, two things which are natural to human perception. Mathematics in fact started as a tool of trade. In order to trade, you need to figure out how many of a thing you have, and how much it costs, and humans have been using that simple form of mathematics ever since there was civilization. Logic is far more complicated, and the fact that it arose much later in our intellectual evolution proves that to be a fact. More abstraction is involved in getting started with logic: even for something simple like “not-A,” you need to understand the unit of the proposition as well as negation, but the basic process is pretty similar.

Logic and mathematics “appear to stand outside of nature” because they deal in abstractions, in the manipulation of units without consideration to whether they actually exist or not. If you use abstract concepts like numbers (to represent clusters of units) or letters (to represent propositions), you can manipulate them all you want without concern to whether “236/3″ represents an actual cluster of 236 things (oranges? electrons?) being divided in three groups, or “”if all bachelors are unmarried then the speed of light in a vacuum is constant” really tells us that there is a relation between the definition of a word and the speed of light.

The elegance and “fine-tuned” nature of logic and mathematics are therefore basically illusions.

5. Morality
Another transcendent entity that is a problem for atheism is morality. With no divine author or judge there is no reason to think that there should be any moral laws that we are obliged to recognize and keep, except for self-serving reasons. And yet, morality aligns with our deepest intuitions: we expect others to recognize it; we urge our kids to exercise it; therapists get rich repairing the effects of its abuse; we judge criminals insane if they do not recognize it; and all cultures affirm it in common principle if not in individual application.
Do you deny objective morality; that the difference between Mother Teresa and Hitler is not just a matter of preference, like chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream? If not, then how do you ground morality; how do you explain where it came from and why we ought to be moral tomorrow?
Skeptics often bring up the “problem of evil” as evidence against God, i.e., if there is a good and all-powerful God, then why is there evil in the world.
Do you think that this is a valid objection? If so, are you admitting that there is evil in the world? What is “evil,” and do you not admit its opposite: “good?”
The problem of evil objection only makes sense if such things as good and evil are objectively real, not just preference statements.

This is a long, confused and convoluted question. Lifeway seems to assume that materialists (whom they call atheists) must believe that there are “no moral laws” and that “the difference between Mother Teresa and Hitler is just a matter of preference.” As a moral realist, I agree that moral laws do exist, and that the difference between Mother Teresa and Hitler is more than a matter of preference (they were both depraved and corrupt human beings, but I don’t disagree that they were very different).

As for whether I believe “good and evil are objectively real,” that would entirely depend on what they mean by “objectively,” because in my experience that word means five things to five different people. If they mean that good and evil exist as more than concepts, that there are beings that incarnate them somewhere in another dimension, then no, I don’t believe in such nonsense. But if they mean that good and evil is a concept that applies universally, then yes I do agree (in fact, the universality principle is, in my opinion, central to morality).

The only question left is, how is this an argument for Christianity? Is it because they believe that a “divine author or judge” is necessary for moral laws? But that’s just an argument from design, just as circular as the others. To say that a “divine author or judge” is necessary for moral laws is to assume that moral laws are authored to begin with, instead of being things to discover in oneself or in the world around us. Since it is true that “morality aligns with our deepest intuitions: we expect others to recognize it; we urge our kids to exercise it; therapists get rich repairing the effects of its abuse; we judge criminals insane if they do not recognize it; and all cultures affirm it in common principle if not in individual application,” and nary a divine principle needs to be invoked in that whole process, then how does the author of the question intend to show that a “divine author or judge” is necessary for us to accept moral laws?

It seems to me that, by putting the emphasis on how ubiquitous morality is, the question puts itself into its own quagmire. Either morality is created by God, or morality already exists in ourselves and in everything we do and think; there’s no middle ground here. As long as the Christians’ argument remains circular, there is no reason to accept it as being superior to the naturalistic explanation.

Click here for part 2.

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14 thoughts on “10 Answers from an Atheist… [part 1/2]

  1. kentmcmanigal April 12 2009 at 0:49

    Excellent! I love watching this nonsense get ripped apart with reason and logic. I look forward to part two.

  2. Roderick T. Long April 12 2009 at 4:57

    I’ve just blogged about this here.

  3. island April 12 2009 at 5:07

    First of all, one must point out that LifeWay apparently does not know what the anthropic principle actually is. The anthropic principle does not support the fine-tuning argument at all. What the anthropic principle actually says is this: we live in a universe compatible with our own existence.

    Nope, that is a “variant interpretation” of the physics that requires that you assume without proof or justification that the multiverse is in fact the reality.

    This is not the most natural expectation, it is an alternative to a resolution to the fine-tuning problem in physics, from first principles.

    The alternative is fine if you have a final theory to justify it, but we don’t, and the pointed nature of the physics that causes reputable atheist physicists to admit that the universe carries an “appearance of design”, most probably indicates that there is a bio-oriented cosmological principle in effect that resolves the problem from first principles that don’t include probabilities, chance or even other possiblities.

    This is the naturally preferred solution to the problem and it will always take theoretical precedence over the alternatives per the scientific method.

    Creationists use the bio-orientation of the physics to says that goddidit, but that can never take precedence over the natural expectation for a law of physics that includes carbon based life as a meaningful feature of the universe.

    They could, however, laugh at your non-evidenced alternative as requiring a greater leap of faith than to think that the universe is exactly what it looks like… “designed”… and I wouldn’t blame them, because your unsupportable rhetoric is weak.

  4. Francois Tremblay April 12 2009 at 15:44

    What in the hell are you talking about. Saying “we live in a universe compatible with our own existence” does not imply multiverses at all. It’s a simple statement derived from the fact that we exist and live in the universe.

  5. island April 12 2009 at 17:50

    Nope, not when you use the statement to say that the universe is not fine-tuned.

    That requires assumptions that aren’t evidenced.

  6. Francois Tremblay April 12 2009 at 17:59

    I did not “use the statement to say that the universe is not fine-tuned.” So what are you talking about?

  7. island April 12 2009 at 18:22

    Yes, you did.

    First of all, one must point out that LifeWay apparently does not know what the anthropic principle actually is. The anthropic principle does not support the fine-tuning argument at all.

    Yes it does, unless you assume assume that there are many universes to lose the significance of the observation in.

  8. island April 12 2009 at 18:23

    Geez, I’ve developed a stutter.

  9. kentmcmanigal April 12 2009 at 18:28

    How about assuming that if the universe were not habitable, we simply wouldn’t be here debating this issue? No “reason” it should necessarily be this way, but here it is and here we are. After the fact we can marvel at how unlikely it is, but that is silly since it is a done-deal.

  10. island April 12 2009 at 18:55

    If the universe weren’t ***specifically habitable***, then there is a runaway effect that takes over its evolution that sends conditions racing to diametrically opposing extreme states.

    No “reason” it should necessarily be this way, but here it is and here we are.

    Your logic wrongly includes an assumption that physicists have no reason to have a natural expectation for a solution that resolves the problem from first principles, e.g., “reason”.

    After the fact we can marvel at how unlikely it is, but that is silly since it is a done-deal.

    Yes this none evidence religious belief is known as “copernicanism”.

    And scientists as well as “free-thinkers” practice it like zealots:

    http://knol.google.com/k/richard-ryals/the-anthropic-principle/1cb34nnchgkl5/2#

  11. Francois Tremblay April 13 2009 at 3:02

    “Yes it does, unless you assume assume that there are many universes to lose the significance of the observation in.”

    The “significance of the observation” is in the predictions it permits us to make about the universe. It’s not “lost.” Unless you can clarify what the hell you’re going on about, please stop posting, as you’re not making any sense.

  12. theconverted April 13 2009 at 8:52

    “there is no “why.””

    Now THAT needs to be on a t-shirt.

    Great job here Franc and needless to say I agree with you. I would posit some even simpler answer’s though:

    “I don’t know, but science is looking into it”.

    That makes far more sense then claiming the universe was created by an entity that must be MORE complex than the universe itself and that now two theists can seem to even define.

    The burden of proof is not on us atheists to answer these questions, but upon the theists to provide compelling, testable evidence that their hypothesis that a god created it all it the right one.

    In short, the default position and assumption is atheism, not theism. Theism requires evidence.

  13. Josh Rasmussen November 1 2009 at 9:52

    Please remove my correspondence with you from your strong atheism website. I no longer wish for that correspondence to be made public at this time.

    Thank you,
    Josh Rasmussen

  14. Francois Tremblay November 1 2009 at 15:28

    A strange request indeed. What are you, an intellectual coward? Nevertheless, I have fulfilled your request.

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