December 04, 2011

The false parallel between interracial and same-sex marriage

One of the chief tactics in the advocacy of same-sex marriage legalization is to point out the supposed parallel with interracial marriage bans.  I recently had two separate exchanges on the topic and this argument was the centerpiece of the discussion.  The argument is basically that discriminating based upon racial preference is really no different than discriminating based upon gender preference, and since we all now agree that interracial marriage is morally acceptable and should be legal, then there is really no moral or legal precedent for denying same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the argument has merit, but it depends upon the premise that race and gender are categorically the same – that two people of the same sex are socially and functionally the same as a man and woman of different races.  I’d like to show now that this is a false premise, and that the parallel between race and gender is only superficial and ignores the profound categorical difference between the two.

For my purposes I’ll take the liberty of distilling the featural differences between the races down to color, which seems uncontroversial since it is a common way of characterizing race.  This should be satisfactory unless one holds to the notion that the races are fundamentally different in some way other than superficial variations in appearance.  To disagree would seem to put one on the road of racism.

Let me begin with an analogy.  If I have a variety of black & white bolts and nuts, which is more meaningful to the nature of nuts and bolts: pairing two of the same color or pairing a nut and a bolt, no matter what the color?  In other words, is it really comparable to say that mixing colors in my nut/bolt sets is equivalent to mixing what two objects I make a set out of, e.g., two bolts?  We may certainly choose to make sets based upon color, but this is only done at the expense of the basic design purpose and the functional difference between nuts and bolts.

This analogy seeks to illustrate the categorical difference between appearance (color) and physical design.  Yes, gender is more complicated than nuts and bolts, and marriage is more than just fitting them together, but the argument being made by same-sex advocates is specifically making a parallel between color and gender, so any meaningful physical differences between the genders would seem to erode the argument.

There is indeed a fundamental difference between the sexes that transcends the superficiality of color differences – a difference upon which the very human species depends.  If your parents were black and white (or any other color combination) they could still have had you, but if they did not have nuts and bolts (so to speak), and had not employed them as designed, then that would have been the end of it (and of you).  Of course, there is always adoption or artificial insemination for those who insist on pairing “bolt” with “bolts” or “nut” with “nuts,” but these ultimately depend upon the intervention and services of the other gender.  By contrast, interracial couples lacked for nothing but acceptance.

Color is a functionally meaningless attributes, whereas there is no more fundamental differentiator among humans than gender.  In fact, you cannot even claim to represent humanity without offering an example of each as was done with the Pioneer Plaque.  If race were indeed equivalent to gender, then they could just as well have chosen to depict two men of different colors; or if gender were as inconsequential as race, then they could simply have presented a man on the plaque and left it at that.

To disagree with my categorical distinction is to suggest that color is just as important to sexual desire as gender.  But who has heard a heterosexual man say that he would rather have another man of the same race than a woman of a different race?  And the criterion for homosexuality seems to be a preference for the same gender no matter the color.  Gays themselves affirm that gender is the main thing – it is what defines homosexuality.  I have never heard of such a thing, but perhaps there is the odd fetishist out there who prefers some particular race above all gender considerations, but I think it is safe to say that gender is in a categorically different place from color.  Scientists seem to agree with me, since they rank color considerations as the least important factor in defining species, genus, family, etc.  Just image how absurd it would be to claim that grouping cardinals, tomatoes, and rubies because of color is just as meaningful as grouping them by categories of animal, vegetable, and mineral.

The upshot is that race and gender are categorically different things, where the categories are of different consequence and relevance to the institution of marriage.  Color is a mere cosmetic property, whereas gender relates to a physical distinction that has always been the prerequisite of marital unions and is necessary for the families that result.  Interracial marriage bans were primarily about maintaining racial purity, which presupposes the success of a traditional marriage that is based upon the foundation of gender distinctions.  Traditional marriage is about bringing the two distinct genders into a committed, loving relationship resulting in an unparalleled union that is truly and fully human.

“Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’?” (Jesus, quoting Genesis 2:24, from Matthew 19:4-5)


July 26, 2011

Was the Norway gunman, Anders Behring Breivik, a "fundamentalist Christian"?

Many have been as quick to label Breivik a "fundamentalist Christan" as they have been to distance Islam from countless other acts of terrorism. Given that a "fundamentalist" is one who holds his particular religion and its founding documents to be accurate, authoritative and imperative (not just a "stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine"{1}), then one must wonder in what way Breivik qualifies. Most "fundamentalist" Christians would balk at his ideas that Christianity is merely a useful cultural banner, or that an atheistic cultural Christian is as good as a religious Christian, or that Jesus Christ would make any place at all for Odin and Norse mythology. I submit the following excerpts from Breivik's manifesto and ask you to consider whether these sound comparable to the sentiments of your average "Bible-thumping" Christian.

As long as there is separation between religion and state, those of us who don't have any religious belief should prefer religions which tend to create reasonable and prosperous communities. Our traditional Judeo-Christian religions have proven this capability.

If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

Being a Christian can mean many things … That you believe in and want to protect Europe’s Christian cultural heritage.

So no, you don’t need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian-atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy (Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter)).

The cultural factors are more important than your personal relationship with God, Jesus or the holy spirit.

I have studied Norse Mythology and have a lot of respect for the Odinist traditions. I consider myself to be a Christian, but Odinism is still and will always be an important part of my culture and identity.

The Church I love doesn’t exist anymore because it has been deconstructed. However, I know that it can be reformed and that it again will embrace and propagate principles of strength, honour and self defense. Instead of abandoning the Church we will save it and re-create it as a nationalistic Church which will tolerate and allow (to a very large degree) native cultures/heritage/thought systems such as Odinism.

Choosing a local/national group would be counterproductive as all the groups I am familiar with are Odinist orientated and not Christian identity groups. It is essential that we choose a banner that has the potential to appeal towards central and southern Europeans as well.

Religion: Christian, Protestant but I support a reformation of Protestantism leading to it being absorbed by Catholicism. The typical “Protestant Labour Church” has to be deconstructed as its creation was an attempt to abolish the Church

Religious: I went from moderately to agnostic to moderately religious

As for the Church and science, it is essential that science takes an undisputed precedence over biblical teachings.

“Logic” and rationalist thought (a certain degree of national Darwinism) should be the fundament of our societies.

Regarding my personal relationship with God, I guess I’m not an excessively religious man. I am first and foremost a man of logic. However, I am a supporter of a monocultural Christian Europe.

If there is a God I will be allowed to enter heaven as all other martyrs for the Church in the past.

{1} Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2000), pg. 245.


May 12, 2010

A Question of Life

This is part 3 of a 10 part series. The introduction can be found here, and the prior post can be found here.

Now, with a universe coming into existence that just happens to be fit for stars, planets, and complex chemistry, we have the question of how those biochemically complex systems (that we call life) came about. Even if an environment is perfectly suitable for habitation, it does not mean that it will automatically and necessarily produce the inhabitants. The arrival of such inhabitants is a separate marvel to be explained.

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?

Randall starts us off by rejecting the idea that this is even a significant scientific challenge.

I don't know that [abiogenesis] is a thorny issue. Scientists see this as a fascinating issue; it's no thorn in anyone's side.

I think that any scientific issue that has been the victim of 150 years of unrequited investigation has the right to be called something like "thorny"; and if this issue does not qualify for such a label, then all of science must consist of simple and "fascinating" problems.

Faithlessgod thinks that I have overestimated the problem and that solutions are just around the corner.

Now is it the thorniest and most intractable problem, I don't think so. The fact that Pruett asks this is indicative that he really does not comprehend the nature of the work in this field. . . . it is not like we have no idea of the origins of life, indeed it is the opposite, we already have too many theories! . . . Of course we do not know which one is correct and all the current ones have some shortcomings . . . It most certainly is not at all intractable.

I do indeed comprehend the nature of the work in this field. It's not a naïve idea that everyone is just sitting around shrugging their shoulders that makes me call this an "intractable" problem; it's the knowledge of the issues relating to such work that leads me to use the term. The very fact that we have "too many theories" is a case in point. We only have competing theories because there is not a promising candidate bereft of difficulties. Faithlessgod admits that "all the current ones have some shortcomings," but a more accurate word than "shortcomings" would be "showstoppers."

I'll take the time here to review some of the technical roadblocks generally encountered by origin of life researchers. Later we’ll look at more specifics.

  • Life requires water, but the very presence of water prevents many of the chemical reactions required to build molecules necessary for life.
  • Certain conditions sufficient to form necessary molecules are just as likely to destroy them once created, like heat or UV rays.
  • The conditions sufficient to yield certain molecules are hostile to other necessary molecules. But those independent components of life must be able to coexist and survive before they can hope to form into units.
  • No matter how interesting a thing might be produced by chance, it is meaningless if it cannot reliably reproduce itself.
  • Even if a self-replicating molecule could manage to form by chance it is a quantum leap between that and the next theoretical level, which is something that can produce other molecules (like proteins) for its own functional entourage and also reproduce itself.
  • The simplest life that we know of or can even conceive of as a functional package is epitomized by interdependent systems that must come about as a group, with none of the parts serving any isolated function. There is a huge void between independent molecules (of any complexity) and life.
  • Any meager gains in theorizing how some part of a cell might come to form are continually outdistanced by the increase in knowledge of what it is that is to be explained.
  • Even where some mechanism might be theorized to form essential molecules, the statistical problem of fortuitous assembly of those molecules still remains, e.g., how you build a functional polypeptide chain (protein) from loose amino acids.
  • The time for chance to do its work is shrinking. By many estimates, life's appearance is now in the 3.8 to 3.5 billion year range, and this may only be because we have difficulty detecting it prior to these dates (note: Earth is alleged to be 4.5 billion years old, and would not have been suitable for life for hundreds of millions of years after that time).

Randall waxes nostalgic about some work from the 50's, which offered the first real experimental encouragement for origin of life researchers. She responds, "There are hundreds of theories of life's origins. The fact is, since the 50's, we've been improving on the Urey-Miller experiment." She then goes on to give a summary of the Urey-Miller experiment (extended by Carl Sagan), which produced some of the building blocks of life. She concludes by saying, "So we know it can happen."

First, I should point out that it is a long way between making a few building blocks of life to saying that you know that abiogenesis can happen! One might just as well claim that observing that stone can erode in block shapes means we know that the natural formation of Egyptian pyramids can happen by chance alone.

Second, let's go ahead and take a look at this experiment to get an idea of the specific kinds of problems associated with abiogenesis.

  • This experiment is dependent upon the assumption that early Earth's atmosphere was "reducing," and could thus form biologically significant molecules. That assumption is debatable (reference, reference, reference).
  • It was also important that the experimental environment be free of oxygen, which would be fatal to the formation of the desired molecules. Unfortunately, the date for the existence of free oxygen is being pushed back earlier and earlier in Earth's history, back to the time in which life was thought to have first appeared (reference, reference, reference).
  • The primary, significant molecular output of this experiment was amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. But only about half of the simpler amino acids used by life were produced.
  • All life is comprised of left-hand amino acids, but this experiment (and every other process known) produces both left and right-hand versions without discrimination. Peptide bonding has no preference for linking one form over the other, though advanced functionality depends upon them all being one handedness (known as homochirality).
  • Remember that this is a controlled experiment — intelligently designed, if you will. It contains a mechanism (a trap) to preserve the synthesized molecules from being destroyed once again by the two energy points and the water within the system. For this reason, the yield is certainly higher and more persistent than anything that might be found in nature.
  • Of the molecules that were produced and captured, the vast majority were biologically meaningless. The largest percentage was a tarry polymer, which would be evidenced in the geological record if amino acids in desirable quantities were produced by similar means on the early earth.
  • Given the limitations of the last few points, the overall yield of such an actual process in nature would have produced a very dilute prebiotic "soup." The thinner the broth, the less would be the chances for the right mix of molecules to find each other in order to combine. And remember, the combination of these molecules into meaningful systems is a matter of astronomical chance, which depend upon mass quantities to overcome statistical improbability. This is why oceans full of prebiotic molecules have long been the great hope and assumption of researchers in this field.

Francois doesn't deny that abiogenesis is a tough issue, only that it counts against materialism.

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.

It's not what we don't know about chemistry that leads to the conclusion that this is a problem; it's what we do know. In fact, it was our past ignorance that led some to conclude that it wasn't a problem at all. Darwin's idea of life arising out of some warm little pond sounded plausible when it was thought that the cell was nothing more than a simple blob of protoplasm. And if you were to challenge scientists at that time for a solution they would be far more justified in saying, "Give us some time. We've only just begun to study the protoplasm to know what we're up against."

Today we understand much of the cell all the way down to the molecular makeup. In fact, we understand it and the problem so well that scientists no longer can fathom that the first organism would have been a complete cell; there supposedly must have been a series of proto-cellular entities leading up to even the simplest of the cells that we observe. (Francois affirms this modern adjustment to the theory when he says, "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.") Never mind that the progression is totally speculative, it includes huge leaps, there is no evidence of such things, and that the existence of complete cells has been pushed so far back in history that the time for chance to build the cell by degree is vanishingly small.

For the committed materialist, this should be an answerable question in principle; chemistry is a fairly straightforward and empirical science. We should at least be able to show the chemical pathways to life even if we have difficulty in connecting those steps to actual geological history. If life indeed formed by natural means, then this has every hope of being experimentally repeatable. Unfortunately, decades of research have offered only a few token victories. I wonder how long we are to wait before applying any skepticism toward the materialist's story. 150 more years? 500 years?

Francois appears to think that we should wait forever; that it is unwarranted to ever plug God into any of our equations:

[This] 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."

It is not as though science is annually filling gaps that Christians have tried to reserve for God. In fact, I'm struggling to think of any such gaps in recent history where God has been banished by science. On the contrary, modern science has revealed many "gaps" for which divine intervention is a neat and consistent fit. This issue of the origin of life and the need of a transcendent cause is a perennial one, which predates Christianity itself. The insistence that the cause is, nay, must be, a materialistic one is a historical newcomer (or at least was the minority report).

Darwin came along and offered us an alternate story. Why must we accept that story by default unless there is compelling reason to do so? Why should we accept "science" of the gaps in all matters? Richard Dawkins has famously said that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." If this is so, then it seems reasonable to assume that biology really is designed for a purpose unless and until it is demonstrated not to be. Materialism not only denies the burden of proof but any need at all to prove its own case. Crying "god of the gaps" is a stall tactic that has begun to ring hollow. In its echo I hear only, "we don't know." And “we don’t know” surely does not qualify as proof.

Here is another interesting problem for those who demand a material, unguided cause for life. There have been some who have honestly proposed that life might have come by way of directed panspermia. But how could we ever know if life were seeded by extraterrestrials if we are forced to rule out causal agents? Certainly, that would be a "natural" cause for life (since aliens are part of nature), but detecting the signs (or need) of such an intervention will be ruled out just the same by the prevailing methodology of naturalism.

One thing on which all my critics were united is the belief that I have mistaken what the fossil record is capable of revealing about early life.

Francois says:

The assertion that "the fossil record" does not contain evidence of the origins of life [is extremely problematic]. How in the hell could there be? Fossils form from hard structures like bones or the imprint of organisms in soft soil.

Anath says:

And why exactly would one think the FOSSIL record would say anything about atmospheric conditions or non-organic matter? Only organic matter is fossilized, which means there would be NO fossils until after complex life was formed.

And Faithlessgod says:

Really, how on earth does the fossil record tell us anything about the prebiotic soup? In saying this Pruett displays a deep ignorance of this topic.

To avoid this confusion, perhaps I should have used "geological" in place of "fossil" record. However, it is not at all uncommon to see the word "fossil" actually used in relation to phenomena surrounding life rather than just the remains of life itself. Terms like "molecular fossil," "geochemical fossil," and "fossil biomarkers" can often be found in the scientific literature. Some specific examples of early formations that are considered fossils, but are not themselves the direct remains of life are stromatolites and oncolites.

Beyond the quibble over my use of the word "fossil," the larger issue is whether or not we can detect much evidence for the state of the early earth and the earliest life forms by looking at the geological strata. Judging by the numerous studies and scientific papers, the answer to that question seems to be "yes." Some of the biochemical signatures of life or early life conditions would include banded iron formations, carbon isotope data, and other chemical biomarkers.

Additionally, it is not just bones and hard body structures of life that may be found in the fossil record, but even simple cellular life. Such "microfossils" have helped us to date the appearance of life (in forms that still exists today) to a time shortly after our planet was stable, but have not yet given evidence for the existence of any precursors to life. For instance, if an ocean rich in amino and nucleic acids had existed, which are necessary precursors of life, this would have left large deposits of nitrogen-rich minerals (nitrogenous cokes). Such finds are conspicuously absent from the early geological record.

Anath offers up a popular solution, and one that I, frankly, find to be the least absurd:

My current favorite theory is the RNA world theory but I understand that it is not without its difficulties. The reason I like it primarily has to do with the fact that I can visualize how it might occur and it seems like a logical explanation of how complex life could arise through simple enzymes and inorganic material. However, I also freely admit that my knowledge of biochemistry is pretty weak

That is part of the problem with this whole issue: it is easy to devise and believe just-so stories about how life came into existence. It is when these stories are examined in detail that we find the deep technical problems. Some may easily visualize how we could ultimately travel to the stars by going faster and faster with advanced spacecraft, or using worm holes, but any amateur astronomer or physicist can burst that bubble with a little dose of reality.

Here's a quick rundown of some of the issues with the RNA-first theory:

  • The same kinds of problems as with amino acids apply here, e.g., being able to create all necessary components, low yields, assumptions about earth conditions, homochirality issues (left/right-handedness).
  • RNA is chemically fragile (especially so at higher temperatures) and difficult to synthesize abiotically.
  • The fortuitous assembly of a catalyzing RNA chain is improbable enough, much more so one which could copy itself.
  • The known range of RNA's catalytic activities is rather narrow. Self-replicating capabilities are unknown, though a "cross-catalytic system involving two RNA enzymes" has been engineered. But that only compounds the probability issue, since chance would now have to provide two complementary RNA ribozymes at the same time and place.
  • Even assuming nature could produce the various necessary molecules in the same locale and in sufficient quantities for chance to do its work, it is no guarantee that other chemicals would not be present to interfere with the assembly of RNA chains.
  • If an RNA world actually thrived for the millions of years it would surely take to yield the DNA world, then it is odd that nothing of it remains. We certainly have every other flavor of lower organism still on display in modern times, e.g., when the eukaryotes came on the scene, the prokaryotes did not perish.
  • It is still a monstrous, inexplicable leap from RNA to the interdependent DNA-RNA-protein system (among other functions) of cellular life.

In a 2006 article in Commentary magazine, David Berlinski wrote a thorough essay outlining the problems and critiquing the proposed solutions. Organic chemist, Robert Shapiro (himself a supporter of evolutionary theory), says of Berlinski's essay, "the case against an 'RNA world' is even stronger than the one Mr. Berlinski presents. Not only were cytosine and ribose unlikely to have been present in any quantity on the early earth, but the same can also be said of adenine and guanine. Moreover, no adequate explanation of the manner in which these parts (and others) could connect together spontaneously to form RNA has ever been presented."

Long is not to be discouraged by such pesky details. He hangs his hope on a general confidence in the power of nature:

Scientists are constantly discovering new forms of spontaneous order, and I fully expect that trend to continue.

I recently read a sneering article which imagined that it refuted intelligent design by pointing out the "spontaneous order" that can naturally arise in the world of free market economics. I am not at all clear on how a system of conscious agents working in willful synergy serves as a good analog for mindless chemical reactions. On the other hand, there are indeed things in nature that naturally form into orderly chemical arrangements, like crystals, carbon fullerenes, and nanotubes. The problem is that order alone is not enough. Neither is complexity. Life is made up of molecules that contain specified complexity — they are in a specific, meaningful order.

A large crystal is very orderly; however, it is nothing but repeating patterns that form up according to natural, chemical laws — a reliable and reproducible process. On the other hand, the proteins, RNA, and DNA molecules in life are not comprised of repeating patterns. They are also not comprised of patterns that arise due to any natural affinities that one molecule might have for another. They are comprised of unique, specific arrangements of molecules that confer functionality to the system. In the case of DNA it is like hardware and software. Perhaps some natural process could be found that would make DNA strands — the hardware — but the arrangement of the nucleotides upon that strand is the software that drives life, and there are no chemical or electrical laws that cause nucleotides to naturally form into information-laden arrangements.

The arrangement of DNA is often compared to language, so let me end with this analogy. Even if we could find some way of spilling alphabet cereal that caused the letters to form into strings and columns (all right-side up), it still would not mean that they would make meaningful words and sentences. There is a quantum leap difference between discovering order in nature and discovering information.

Several of the responders objected to my use of the word "miracle" to characterize the reaction of scientists to this problem.

Self has this to say:

I cannot help that some writers use the word "miracle" to describe something. Some scientists may, indeed, believe that a miracle did occur; but others do not and may have just used sloppy language to state their case.

DB0 goes further to accuse me of outright dishonesty:

When a Scientist says "Miracle," he may actually mean something with a probability so low, that it's amazing that it even happened. Of course if one considers the sheer size of the universe, the possibility of anything like that not happening is what starts to get low.

However to take a word in general, claim that science writers use it, while not providing a context, and then use that as some kind of subconscious belief is nothing more than equivocation and very intellectually dishonest.

I mention the word "miracle" because it is a testimony to the fact that the scientific community does indeed recognize the scope of the problem and the shortcomings of the proposed theories. This word is seldom employed by science commentators; there is a reason it is used in this case.

Due to the intentional brevity of my original article I was necessarily constrained from offering quotes and detailed context for my questions. It is unfortunate that this should be received as "intellectual dishonesty." My context is that the word "miracle" has been used too many times to count in scientific exhibits and documentaries to which I have been exposed, as well as its direct use by the scientific community. Since my reply is anything but brief, I'll now reference just a few such cases where the word is used by academics in relation to life.

One of the miracles of life, to my mind, is the accuracy with which DNA gets itself replicated in the cell. It has to be that unbelievably accurate, otherwise we'd all die out in no time. (Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith)

As far as we've looked, there's only one place in the entire universe where the miracle of life exists: our own planet Earth. (Carl Sagan)

An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going. (Francis Crick)

The de novo appearance of oligonucleotides [i.e., specifically sequenced RNA bases] on the primitive Earth would have been a near miracle. (Orgel and Joyce)

Even I am willing to forgive these materialists for their "sloppy language," but the fact that there exist such vacuums into which the word "miracle" can readily slip tells us something about the nature of the problem. I can't remember the last time I've heard a mathematician, geologist, or chemical engineer employ the word. It seems that those who study life and its origins must be a particularly "sloppy" group, or there is something else going on here.

Is the appearance of life a "miracle" simply because it is a hard problem to solve, or because it is a matter of vanishingly small probability that it should have appeared? I would argue, and I think I have argued, that it is both. Nobel Laureate Christian de Duve has called for "a rejection of improbabilities so incommensurably high that they can only be called miracles, phenomena that fall outside the scope of scientific inquiry." The chance appearance of functional DNA, RNA, proteins and other elaborate large molecules qualify as such.

Some of my responders think it doesn't really make a difference if this is a problem for materialism that may never be solved. Francois offers this challenge:

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.

Self adds the following:

I'm very comfortable saying that any given problem can be unanswered. I'm not sure why xians feel that everything they can possibly imagine must be answered and if our current capability doesn't permit an answer then we must posit some sort of god intervention.

The point is not that all questions must be answered. There are some questions that by their very nature may not be answerable because there is a categorical disconnect between the cause and effect, like what caused the Big Bang. This is especially true when involving causal agents. For instance, we may never know the motive for the JFK shooting (why it was done), but we certainly can know how he was killed.

In principle, we should be able to say whether or not abiogenesis is possible. If such processes are part of the flow of the present material, observable world, then there is every reason to think that we could discover them. There is no practical veil between the cause and effect except our current ignorance.

If one is suggesting a natural mechanism or law, then one has something particular which could be exhaustively tested. But how do we know that something happened by natural means unless we can demonstrate that nature is capable of producing such a thing? The devil is entirely in the details in this case. Philosophical materialism seems to get a pass on this, unlike other theories that must offer evidences before warranting conclusions.

On the other hand, if life is the product of divine intervention, then there is a break of continuity with nature that we cannot push past with our theories and experiments. We cannot say precisely how God did it unless He tells us Himself, i.e., did He create from scratch, did He shepherd molecules together with secondary causes, etc. It is more a historical question than an experimental one. The best we can do, in principle, is to observe the evidence that life appeared without precursor and despite insurmountable improbability. We could find the various fingerprints on nature, at particular historical points, but not know the precise means of the handling.

It is not necessary to know the exact means by which an action is taken in order for it to be reasonable to believe that it did happen. If I find a fort standing where I left a pile of wood the night before, then I may not know how it was assembled or who did it, but I will surely be justified in my skepticism toward theories of natural causes.

Christianity is happy to live with open questions since it believes that God has reserved some mysteries to Himself. But some questions are relevant to the debate over His very existence. Materialists assure us that there is no evidence or need of a creator in the biological realm due to alleged natural processes for which they will someday find concrete support. Is it so unusual that theists should require evidence of such a thing before accepting its validity?

Regarding my observation that the issues of evolution and abiogenesis are so commonly segregated, Faithlessgod says this:

Some evolutionary biologists do separate origins from the evolution of life but simply because their specialty is the evolution of life, abiogenesis is not what they study. . . . Pruett seeks to manufacture a problem or an issue which does not really exist here.

Anath adds the following:

"Evolutionists" segregate abiogenesis because abiogenesis is a separate field of study. The Theory of Evolution deals only with the events AFTER abiogenesis, and cannot explain the origin.

Admittedly, it is two parts of a larger puzzle. In fact, it must be, because evolution only acts upon what is already alive and capable of reproducing. This makes it all the more difficult for origin of life researchers, since the gulf to be bridged is between simple chemistry and a complex self-replicating assembly rather than just "simple" mutations on existing DNA molecules. As Lynn Margulis has said, "To go from a bacterium to people is less of a step than to go from a mixture of amino acids to a bacterium."

However, I find it curious that the separation is so often and quickly pointed out in debates I have seen and had myself. It seems less for the sake of technical precision than for the sake of insulating evolution from collateral damage. At a metaphysical level, one may compartmentalize these two issues for distinct explanations. For instance, one could be driven purely by nature and the other require some transcendent involvement. However, the atheist does not have this luxury; He is saddled with a purely natural explanation for both. If one cannot be explained, then the entire atheistic project is failed.

To my question of what kind of evidence is needed to prove that the appearance of life is, in fact, miraculous, Anath replies:

A crocoduck. Something COMPLETELY impossible and unexplainable. Life rising from non-life is NOT a crocoduck. It is unusual and potentially quite improbable, but it is not unexplainable.

How can one dogmatically assert that abiogenesis is not unexplainable when it has for so long defied explanation and suffers all the practical roadblocks that I have presented here and more? This is merely the expression of a dogmatic faith in materialism.

Life from non-life cannot be like a crocoduck, in principle. As affirmed by you previously, evolution, which a crocoduck would supposedly confound, is a physically distinct issue from abiogenesis. Even if a crocoduck were discovered it would, at most, refute the theory of evolution. That is, unless you want to embrace the idea that they are indeed bound as one issue.

It seems to me that there is nothing analogous to this for abiogenesis that could be discovered, or that is not already known. The indisputable data we have is that it is simple chemistry on the one side and complete cellular life on the other. Discoveries of “crocoducks” in between the two might only serve to give confidence in the power of material causes, not refute it.

As it happens, neither the ongoing problems with each theory of essential molecule formation nor the increased understanding of the complexity of what is to be explained have served in any way to dampen the spirits of the committed materialists (with notable exceptions). What more could be discovered to disprove the materialists creation story? It is the incorrigible nature of the lack of supporting evidence for it that has any hope to stand as proof against it. But if “we’re looking into it” may eternally serve as justification for materialism, then any statistical improbability may be put into play.

As to the fate of evolution upon finding a "crocoduck," I am confident that belief in it would soldier on. The model would merely see a descriptive adjustment or make yet another place on its shelf for a future explanation. I have seen it happen many times before. The foundations may shudder and crack, but no one ever seems to question whether they have built their temple upon the wrong frame.

Some examples of “crocoducks”:

  • Biological classifications based on various markers (e.g., morphology and specific gene sequences) often do not align as expected. (reference, reference)
  • The meager accumulated evidence (since Darwin’s time) for the predicted gradualism as witnessed by 1) events like the Cambrian explosion, and 2) the discovery that the fossil record is most often characterized by patterns of stasis and punctuation.
  • The discovery that the fundamental cellular domains of bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes are found not to fit into the classical tree of life model (i.e., there is no clear line of descent either before them or between them). (reference, reference)
  • The discovery that the cell not only contains unfathomably complex molecules, but information-laden molecules.
  • The discovery that cells consist predominately of molecular machines, many of which are analogous to macro-scale human-designed machines. (reference, reference)
  • Even the genetic approximate of a "crocoduck" does nothing to phase the theory.

After effectively deflating the various theories of abiogenesis in his book, Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life in the Universe, Robert Shapiro makes the following interesting statement.

Some future day may yet arrive when all reasonable chemical experiments run to discover a probable origin of life have failed unequivocally. Further, new geological evidence may yet indicate a sudden appearance of life on the earth. Finally, we may have explored the universe and found no trace of life, or processes leading to life, elsewhere. Some scientists might choose to turn to religion for an answer. Others, however, myself included, would attempt to sort out the surviving less probable scientific explanations in the hope of selecting one that was still more likely than the remainder.

The materialist is free to continue seeking his alternative explanations, but it is unfair to demand that all explanations must always be "natural" even if they elude us for eternity. This is tantamount to saying that atheism wins, game over, and no further issues or anomalies will ever be considered as strikes against it. This seems a presumptive stance in a historically god-soaked world that, to use Dawkins' language, is full of "complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." Perhaps it appears that way because it actually turns out to be true. It is certainly consistent with the story that theism has been telling all along. Scientists may determine among themselves that all explanations must be by way of mindless, natural causes, but I am less interested in following the doctrines of "science," as defined by its secular high priests, than I am in discovering truth.

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May 12, 2009

A Question of Order

This is part 2 of a 10 part series. The introduction can be found here, and the prior post can be found here. I will add two more blog responders at this point in the discussion. They are from:

The next question relates to the kind of universe that was produced by the creation event discussed in the first question.

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?

Faithlessgod offers this objection to the very idea of fine-tuning:

I disagree with Pruett's supposition here, it certainly does not look like an orderly and hospitable universe, since as far we can tell the range where the type of life we know could occur and survive is an incredibly minute portion of the universe.

Randall says it this way:

I don't think the universe is fine tuned for life at all. As far as we know there is only one planet in this one little solar system that can sustain complex life.... most of what's out there is space.

I wouldn't expect to have to go into great detail on this, since it has already been so heavily addressed by cosmologists. Those like Barrow & Tipler, Rees, Davies, Susskind, Bostrom, Smolin, and others have written volumes on this issue. The fine-tuning of the laws of physics (or Anthropic Coincidences) that permit the support of life in the universe is largely undisputed data. It is the conclusions drawn from that data where the true controversy lies.

Since there appears to be a misunderstanding of what I mean by finely tuned for the support of complex life I'll try to clarify the point. I do not simply mean that our own little planet happens to be hospitable to us, and I don't mean that the whole universe is a tropical paradise. I mean that the very laws of physics make things like galaxies, stars, and warm little planets possible at all.

Just two examples:

1) The electrostatic force repels protons (each being positively charged) while the strong nuclear force binds them together. The strong force is stronger than the electrostatic force, but only at short range, while the electrostatic force dominates at larger range. So, in order for nuclear fusion to occur, as it does in stars, there must be a certain amount of energy applied to propel one proton against another in order for it to overcome the electrostatic charge and stick via the strong force. I liken it to putting superglue on two plus-ended magnets and then forcing them together.

Since the universe originally consisted almost entirely of hydrogen, we would not have the abundance of heavier elements if it were not for the ability of stars to fuse atoms (and then spew them out in explosions). But if the strong force were too strong or the electrostatic force too weak, then fusion would be too efficient. Matter would more easily ignite and we would have fewer planets and more stars. Stars would burn out much faster and the lighter elements (being just as desirable as the heavier ones for molecule building) would be quickly depleted. Conversely, if the strong force were weaker or the electrostatic force stronger, then we would have fewer and larger stars, and less of the heavy elements. In fact, if fusion were too inefficient, then the large masses that might otherwise form stars could actually collapse into black holes before they would even have a chance to ignite.

2) The quantity, expansion rate, and distribution of the material of the primordial universe all have a part in determining the nature of its resulting cosmology. If there were not such a mysteriously large imbalance of matter over anti-matter, we would not have the material to form cosmological structures. Various factors seem to work together (e.g., inflation rate and dark energy) to determine the expansion of the universe. Minute differences in these factors would affect a number of things, including whether the universe recollapsed upon itself before anything interesting could be produced or whether it expanded too rapidly for the material to coalesce into structures like galaxies and stars.

It seems to me that a universe that survives its genesis, forms complex structures, and supports the generation and assembly of complex, diverse molecules is something we might even objectively value over a hiccup universe, or one that was filled with nothing but diffuse hydrogen gas. And even though there are more empty, hot, or cold places in the overall universe than there are just-right stars and just-right planets, it takes this kind of universe to be able to support such things.

If I were to accept the substance of Faithlessgod and Randall's complaint, I might just as well say that even our planet is not so great for humans because of all the hot, frigid, or wet places it contains. All these are either necessary for a life-sustaining climate/ecology (like an abundance of water) or they are simply byproducts of physics and geometry (like cold polar regions).

Tremblay takes issue with the idea that the Anthropic Principle has any relationship to the fine-tuning point that I raise:

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.

Yes, "LifeWay" understands the Anthropic Principle and its various permutations, such as the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), which will be discussed later. The very fact that there are even flavors of it is witness to my point that there is something of interest being discussed in the scientific community.

Of course the materialist would think the fine-tuning question does not support the role of a designer (else he would not be a materialist), but the Anthropic Principle is certainly born of the observation that the Anthropic Coincidences are necessary to the existence of observers. If the Anthropic Principle were nothing more than a tautological statement, like saying that coldwater fish are found in cold water, then I would not expect to find so many physicists and cosmologists writing books for the purpose of wrestling with its implications. Why try to explain away or rationalize an entirely meaningless observation?

A common rejoinder I've heard is that we shouldn't be so presumptuous as to think the universe is designed for us; it might have been some different way that would result in another species asking the same question. Self offers a form of this argument as follows:

To say the universe was fine-tuned just to permit life is backwards; what is more nearly true is that life is fine tuned to exist in the universe as it is today.

Anath makes the point this way:

It's like claiming your life is somehow miraculous and special because YOU were the specific result of your parent's copulation. Had a different sperm reached the egg first, or had something interrupted your parents before transfer that particular time, a totally different person would be saying the EXACT same thing.

It should be understood that I am not simply arguing for an egocentric view that the universe is fine tuned for humans or even for "life as we know it." If some member of a nebular squid species were to ask the same question, then I would grant his right to do so, because the Anthropic Coincidences would apply equally to him. I am arguing that the laws of physics are fine tuned for the support of life of any kind, which depends upon things like a universe, diverse materials, and the ability to form complex chemical structures.

Since there are so many other ways that the universe might have been that would not support life, stars, or even a persistent universe, and if there is anything noteworthy about complex, sentient, biochemical systems, then it seems that the least we can say is that this kind of universe is remarkably improbable.

At this point I have often heard the comment made: "Well, you wouldn't be here to wonder about it if it hadn't happened!" This is a hackneyed paraphrase of the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP). To all my responders credit, I didn't see this voiced (in so many words). However, I think it is worth addressing, which I will do by simply paraphrasing the Swinburne/Leslie parable:

Suppose you are dragged before a firing squad. There are 100 trained marksmen all intent upon your demise. The command to fire is given. The guns blaze, but a moment later you discover that you are still alive, untouched by the bullets. You laugh out loud and marvel at your good fortune, but an annoyed captain of the guard simply growls at you, "There's nothing remarkable here, fool. You wouldn't be alive to remark about it if hadn't happened." And then he executes you himself with his own sword.

Even if the captain had killed you before you could ask the question, "How did I survive that?" it still would be legitimate for some observer to ask it. The WAP seeks to negate the observer's question by depending upon his existence. If he exists, he can't ask the question because he wouldn't be here to ask it otherwise. If he weren't here, then there's no one to ask questions so the problem is forfeit. It seems a hollow victory for the materialist to win on a technicality, but surely it is a more remarkable thing to have observers who ask questions than to have cold, dead space. I guess it is like a 3D stereogram. You either see it or you don't.

Faithlessgod goes on to raise a good point about other possible universes:

We have no idea what type of universes could occur with different constants, only that they would be radically different from ours, but this tells us nothing about whether the equivalent of life is more or less likely in those other universes.

The Anthropic Coincidences applicable to this universe suggest that of the kind of laws and materials that we are dealt, this particular arrangement adds up to something special. Perhaps some other dramatically different mix could add up to a recipe for success, but that would be another island in a vast sea of improbability as well.

To use a card analogy, which one of my responders employed, our universe's order may be compared to throwing a deck of cards up in the air and having them all come down in neat, numerically sequenced stacks by suit. There are certainly a large number of other ordered ways that the cards may come down, like numerically sequenced stacks of four-of-a-kinds, but they would be no less probable than the nearly infinite number of other chaotic arrangements that might result.

And to suggest that other radically different universes might help us here is to suggest that there might be a way that any old arrangement of its materials would yield order. This is like saying that in another universe made of dice instead of cards, that most rolls of the dice will come up all sixes, or in stacks. Perhaps there could be some universe where the laws are so rudimentary that there's no possible "variation," or any variation would yield the same assembly capability, but even that kind of universe surely would be less probable than all the other more dependent kinds, like the one we happen to occupy.

Interestingly, Tremblay makes an objection that would call this into question:

Implicit in this argument is the belief that the parameters of the universe could take any quantity. . . .

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.

This is certainly a valid argument, but why think that the values could not be different? What meta-laws exist to constrain the amount of matter over anti-matter or the expansion dynamics entailed in the Big Bang? Even if the laws and events inherent in this universe where somehow necessary or predetermined, then this only pushes the question back a level. Why should the "necessary" laws be so remarkably configured? Why would the brute laws of physics have to favor order? How very fortuitous!

A popular theory among cosmologists involves the idea that we exist in just one of a number of bubble universes. While I will not attempt to psychoanalyze the motivation for such a theory, I will note that I have usually seen the theory employed as a response to the Anthropic Coincidences. As the argument goes, we just happen to live in a jackpot universe that is just right for life. Unlike Tremblay, these cosmologists don't seem to have a problem with the idea that the universe-barfing device may have different settings. Nor do they seem to agree with those who argue that there just isn't anything special to be explained or they would not make appeal to infinite universes for that explanation.

Tremblay closes with this conversation stopper:

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."

Perhaps we should break the news to those like cosmologists Bernard Carr and Martin Rees, who once stated in the journal Nature, "Nature does exhibit remarkable coincidences and these do warrant some explanation." Perhaps we should simply think of them as philosophically naïve to require explanations, but it seems to me that science is all about the "whys."

Tremblay suggests that explanations should extend only to the reason for the physical condition (like, the sky is blue because of short wavelength light diffusion), but not to any deeper meanings (like, why should physics have to work in such a way that it yields lovely blue skies?). Perhaps this is a good rule of thumb for science proper, but it is a castration of the human spirit, which, for some strange reason always wants to go the extra mile in its understanding.

Materialists would apparently say to us, "Just get over it! There's no meaning to this or any other aspect of existence. Everything just is what it is." For my point in question, this means that even if it actually is the case that the universe is fine tuned for complex life (of any kind), and it is a genuine statistical improbability, then we are disqualified from having stray thoughts of wonder because they presume something to wonder about that does not exist: teleology (purpose/design/meaning).

It is true that this, and many of my questions, depend upon teleology. In fact, teleology is part-and-parcel to the worldview I am advocating. But surely teleology cannot be ruled out a priori any more than we could meaninglessness. I might just as well claim, "the atheist can't say the universe just is what it is, because that's a circular argument: it presupposes that there actually is no meaning to the universe." How, then, is one to demonstrate the need of a designer if one cannot point to anything as evidence merely and precisely because it supports his thesis!

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April 27, 2009

A Question of Cosmic Origins

This is part 1 of a 10 part series. The introduction can be found here.

The first topic relates to the great historical question of origins and trades on concepts found in the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.

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?"

Francois Tremblay proceeds to take issue primarily with the logical composition of my question.

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.

Roderick T. Long further elaborates the objection.

It makes no sense to ask for an explanation of the whole of existence – whether that whole includes a God or not. Any attempt to explain existence has to appeal either to something in existence or something not in existence. If it appeals to something that’s already in existence (be it God, quarks, or whatever you like), then you’re not explaining all of existence; and if it appeals to something not in existence, then you’ve offered no explanation at all.

My point was not to ask a trick question, but to seek a reaction to the fact that this universe gives evidence of a beginning. When I speak of something and nothing I am speaking from the materialist's perspective. Of course, as a theist, I believe that "something" has always existed; I have a "first cause" or "prime mover."

Long basically understands this, as he continues:

The concept of explanation applies only within the realm of existence; that’s why both theists and atheists agree that chains of explanation stop with something whose existence has (and needs) no explanation beyond itself – whether it’s God or energy.

This is a good observation, and actually is the kernel of the response I would make to George Self when he asks, "If a xian wants to take the beginnings back to some god that made it all, I would ask, 'but who made god?'" Something has to eternally exist or there would be nothing right now. Something cannot come from nothing. We suggest that this something is God, whose very definition includes the idea of self-existence and eternality. If the atheist will not allow an eternal God to stand as an acceptable first cause, even in theory, then the atheist has no grounds to lean upon an eternal universe (or energy) either.

The problem that I point out with this question is that even if it might be conceptually possible to have an eternal universe (which I could argue against as well), by all indications this one had a beginning. I am not asking for an explanation for the universe, which might lead to the counter-question of why there is a God; I am asking the atheist what he (or she) does with the evidence for an origin to the universe.

Alison Randall takes (in my mind) the sensible position that "nothing does not and has never existed . . . because you can't have anything come into existence from nothing."{1} This serves to underscore the problem of our current observation that all space, time, matter, and energy burst onto the scene at a finite point in history. If it can ever be said to have come from "nothing," or no prior state can be identified, then materialism will have hit a dead end in one of its most important avenues of justification.

Randall then goes on to postulate that "everything always existed . . . as a dense singularity of energy-matter." Here's where we could get into an arcane scientific discussion and I could ask things like, how "infinitely small" (as the singularity is often described) is distinguishable from "nothing," how something natural could exist prior to the space-time continuum in which existence is defined, and why a gravity well isn't happy eternally staying that way.

But I don't need to go here, because there is not even agreement on the idea of the origin of the singularity. For instance, inflationary theory, which is the prevailing big bang model, says that the singularity was generated by something like a "quantum fluctuation." Membrane theory doesn't even have a place for a singularity, and one of its advantages is the very fact that it doesn't have to wrestle with the difficulties associated with one. As this physics article explains about one of the big bang models that require a singularity,

The problem with the Big Crunch/Big Bang model is that the mathematical laws of classical general relativity do not work at a singularity. And if scientists cannot mathematically understand the singularity, they cannot, in theory, fully understand the geometry of spacetime, either before the Big Crunch or after the Big Bang.

Randall continues her response:

I don't pretend to know a lot about it, but [the Singularity/Big Bang model] seems to be one of the best explanations we have right now, along with other ideas . . . like string theory, multiverses, and such.

Umm, which theory was it that is the "best explanation?" She lists these other things because there is NOT an explanation right now, only theories, else we wouldn't have other contenders vying for dominance. I think Randall knows this, but she adds this parting shot to show where her preferences lie:

The theories that are made from observable evidence are a lot more juicy and intriguing than ancient mythologies.

Unfortunately, the only observations and evidences we have say nothing more than that there was a beginning to this universe. There are not so much theories made from observable evidence as there are only theories seeking evidences as to how that happened by "natural" means. This is exactly why there is so much excitement over things like the Large Hadron Collider and Planck satellite, which are hoped to offer supporting evidence for one or another idea (though how we can prove the nature and events of something "outside" this universe using observations born of the laws contained within it I do not know).{2}

The bottom line is that there's really not an explanation for the origin of the universe, and naturalistic explanations are simply occasions to engage in sci-fi narratives. As Leon Lederman (Nobel Prize winner in physics) says in his book, The God Particle:

A story logically begins at the beginning. But this story is about the universe and unfortunately there are no data for the very beginning. None, zero! We don't know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billionth of a trillionth of a second — that is, some very short time after the creation in the Big Bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up. We are in the realm of philosophy.

This is where the discussion must ultimately end. As George Self concludes, "I'm quite comfortable saying, 'I don't know, and neither does anyone else.'" And one blog commenter summed up the responses by saying, "I don't know, but science is looking into it."

Fine. That is an honest and somewhat acceptable answer. Every worldview must be permitted some mysteries. But if this is a satisfactory response for all the intractable problems of materialism, then atheists shall forever be free to think themselves rational, since science will always be "looking into it." However, I doubt they would be so kind as to allow us to reply to their tough questions with, "I don't know, but our theologians are looking into it."

Without overstating my case, it seems reasonable to say that evidence for a beginning to this universe is at least problematic for materialistic atheism. And even while atheists can avoid a proof for God by eternally leaving the question open to scientific investigation, we should be able to say that a cosmic origin is at least consistent with theism, particularly classical Christian theism.{3}

After offering his shrug to the problem of cosmic origins, Self adds this addendum:

Even if I wanted to assume that time had a beginning at some point in the distant past that still does not prove that the xian "god" created that point. Perhaps the cosmos was started by a unicorn or a magic genie.

Unfortunately, this does not at all avoid the problem for the atheist. A magic genie or unicorn with the power and knowledge to create our universe would still be a god, for all practical purposes. What Self does do is touch on the fact that the Cosmological Argument is limited in the work that it can accomplish. Even if the atheist were to concede the need of a creator, it is another thing to demonstrate the nature of that creator. For this reason, the Cosmological Argument can never be more than an argument for theism in general{4}, and must work in conjunction with other arguments to arrive at the God of Christian theism.



  1. There are some who disagree with Alison and are bold enough to accept the premise that there once indeed was nothing. Dr. Peter W. Atkins (himself an atheist) holds that the "nothing" managed to split itself into the positively and negatively charged universe that we enjoy today. Tada! The Force stays in balance, since "nothing" has yielded a universe with a net charge of nothing, and may return to such in the future. It's all virtual nothingness with no gross explanation required. It all sounds rather artful as a high level theory, but explaining exactly how "nothing" managed to send itself on an extended holiday is where it begins to unravel.
  2. I might conversely say to Randall, "Theories with a long philosophical pedigree are a lot more juicy and intriguing than ideas from sci-fi movies."
  3. You can expect this to emerge as a recurring theme in each of my questions.
  4. In fact, cosmological arguments have been in play since long before Christianity was founded.
Part 2 can be found here.

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10 Replies to the Atheists

A while back I wrote the article, 10 Questions for the Atheist. It has elicited a number of responses since that time, particularly on some recent blogs. I thought it might be time to do a follow-up series to deal with replies to each "question" in my article. I'll proceed by taking each question in turn — one per post — and addressing some of the responses I've encountered.

I began the article with this statement:

Atheism, by definition, holds that there is no God and nothing beyond this world of matter, space, time, and energy. Consistent with this viewpoint come a large number of necessary truths and the problems relating to them. Atheism is not made rational merely by the rejection of the evidences for God; it has its own wares to sell and difficulties to overcome. Here is a sampling of the kinds of issues which atheism is obliged to address.

By this, I mean to point out that atheism is more than just a rejection of the God proposition. It is its own proposition. It makes its own worldview claim and is saddled with certain questions and mysteries that still emerge and must be answered in a way consistent with atheism. Theists are often charged with having a too-easy answer for life's mysteries: Goddunnit. Questions of origins, design, morality, and consciousness may be "conveniently" dispatched by appeal to the Deity, but they are left on the table for the atheist to address. And if the atheist has no solid answer to life's most compelling and fundamental questions, then exactly what is it that justifies atheism as a rational contender? Why believe atheism to be true apart from compelling answers to such questions? Why not be agnostic at most?

One atheist responds to my opening statement as follows:

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 [the] whole set of questions here is not actually about atheists at all, but rather about materialists. (Francois Tremblay)

I will have to agree that "materialist" is probably a better word for what I describe here, and that this represents a subset of the "atheist" population. However, it is the largest subset, the most vocal, and in my mind it is what most reasonably follows from the concept of atheism. I am not, here, concerned with atheists who make room for spiritual elements, and apparently Tremblay does indeed know what I mean by "beyond this world," since he continues on to list several fine examples of otherworldly things, like souls and ghosts. It seems to me that if one is comfortable with the idea of immaterial beings, then there isn't any principled difficulty with the idea that one Being might be greater than us and precede even the material world that we inhabit.

Next I'll move on to my "questions." Each one is presented with a bit of contextual setup, followed by one or more actual questions to the atheist that relate to the topic. The setup is unfortunately brief, of necessity, but is itself food for discussion.

The responses I'll be addressing come from the following persons:

This is the introduction to a 10 part series. Part one can be found here.


January 23, 2009

Change We Can Be Leavin'

A coworker of mine (I'll call him "Jack") had a conversation with a family member ("Joe") over Christmas that went something like this.

Joe: "Who did you vote for?"

Jack: "McCain."

Joe: "Oh... You don't like Obama?"

Jack: "Why do you like him?"

Joe: "Because he's for change."

Jack: "Change, huh? Can you give me something specific that he wants to change, and can you tell me what he wants to change it to?"

[crickets chirping]

Now, I don't mean to suggest that an informed Democrat (or just Obama supporter) cannot give a meaningful reply to such a question, but I have indeed seen this kind of sweeping ignorance displayed — sometimes from high-level media or political figures — about the man Obama and his policy initiatives. I think also that there was an intentional campaign waged to ride the wave of excitement that optimistic, yet nebulous, slogans like "change" and "hope" could provide. If one does not define such words, then unsatisfied people are free to inject them with whatever meaning best suites their hopes and dreams. Obama proved himself to be a master of generalities in his campaign, and people have always been restless with their lot and disappointed with their leaders. There is no human utopia, though we ever seek to achieve it through "change." It was a winning strategy and Obama won fairly with it, though I like to think that our leadership should be called to a higher purpose than simply employing the best campaign tactics that money can buy.

Now, "change" is a fine word in the right circumstances if we are clear what this means. But at the Obama rallies the word itself seemed to carry the day, and the Democrats rarely condescended to get more specific than to imply that it was to be a departure from "the failed policies of the Bush administration." This is not enough. As my preteen son observed, "Gee, I guess communism would be a 'change,' wouldn't it?" As a sunny day may change to a rain shower, and a rain shower may change to a thunderstorm, "change" does not always equal "better."

Perhaps the response may be given that we are presently in a thunderstorm, and so any change is likely to be for the better. Well, that may be so, and that may be debated, but it suggests to me another observation I'd like to make here (and I'd like to credit Dennis Prager for the way he clarified this for me).

I have heard many of those on the Left, who most enthusiastically carry the banner of "change," complain that they are unjustly charged with being unpatriotic. "Patriotism can entail criticizing your country and its leadership," they will often say. First I will observe that I have heard their complaints far more than I have heard the charge actually leveled. In any case, let's think for a minute about what these champions of change are trying to say about their country.

Patriotism is generally defined as the love and devotion of one's country. But what does it mean for that love if one desires to "change" his country? In Obama's case, we're not talking about a little change here or there. As he has said numerous times, he wants to "fundamentally change America." But do you "change" what you claim to love? Imagine turning to your spouse and saying, "Honey, I sure do love you. However, I would be happier if I could fundamentally change you." If you try this, be sure to duck, and especially don't mention the gorgeous celebrity you'd like to change them into.

Do we really change what we love? Perhaps we might "fix," "heal," or "improve" what we love, but "fundamentally change" it? This sounds like someone who loves his country only because it is his country (like a college student roots loudest for the sports team of his own school), and then simply desires it to be something that suits his own imagination.

But it's not enough to want to change the current course of the country; the Left wants to go so far as to change its history and the vision of its founders as well. (You know, the founding fathers were all secular {or Deists at worst}, same-sex marriage and abortion are rights consistent with the spirit of the Constitution, and our finest hours were inspired by liberal-left ideals.) This way they can both say they want change, but also claim to be restoring the country to its original state.

Brilliant! Well played American Left, you've won the White House! If this were just an episode of the reality game show Survivor my hat would be off to you. But if the end one hopes to achieve has moral gravity, then the means one uses to achieve it should be morally prudent. It would be refreshing if we could be up front about our intentions and clear in our language so that the people could make truly informed decisions about its leadership.

I would think better of the Left if they'd just come right out and say they don't much like the country and the prudish, outdated sensibilities of its founders, and they want to craft a new one to suit their vision. This is very much the message they relay when they're not busy insisting otherwise. The problem is, that kind of honesty would alienate the majority of the voting public, who also rather like this country and are so optimistic as to imagine that ill-defined words like "change" can mean something good but fairly moderate, not really fundamental. And we mustn't frighten the voters.

So, Mr. President, if you are really serious about this business of fundamental change for the country, patterned after a Leftist ideology (which we have seen hints of all along), I suggest you slip it to those who believe in you slow and subtly. Otherwise a voting majority may wake up and conclude that yours is the kind of change we can be leavin'.


October 08, 2008

Ghost in the Machine

Sobbing, shaking and knowing death was imminent, [Nancy Reagan] held her husband's hand about 1 p.m. Saturday as he inhaled deeply and opened his eyes for the first time in five days.

While most thought Alzheimer's disease had robbed former President Reagan of all his memory, the last look he gave his wife was one of deep acknowledgment, [his daughter Patty Davis] writes for People magazine.

"At the last moment when his breathing told us this was it, he opened his eyes and looked straight at my mother. Eyes that had not opened for days did, and they weren't chalky or vague," Davis recalls. "They were clear and blue and full of life. If a death can be lovely, his was."

Davis and her brother Ron were standing next to their father's bed when the astonishing interchange between their parents took place.

(Source. Other sources.)

After Ronald Reagan's death I watched a television interview where Ron Jr. recounted this story himself. He was very emotional as he spoke, and it was clear that he believed that something profound had transpired. His father had apparently burst forth through a broken body to bid farewell to his beloved wife. This kind of story is not unique in my experience, but what makes it interesting is whom it is that is telling it here and how it fits into his overall view of human nature.

Ron Reagan Jr. is a self-described atheist. Consistent with, and common to, atheism is the philosophy of materialism. Materialism is the idea that all things that exist can be explained in purely material terms, and there are no entities such as gods, angels, or human souls which exist beyond the boundaries of the physical universe. This means that the "mind" is simply an emergent property of the physical brain — without a brain, there is no mind. It also implies that a malfunctioning brain will yield a malfunctioning mind. Given a materialistic outlook, how does an atheist like Ron Reagan process his father's last moments of life?

Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease, which affects the brain cells and the connections between them. A brain at the fatal end of this illness is a devastated organ from which an identifiable "mind" should not hope to emerge. In the case of Ronald Reagan, he had not even opened his eyes in days, and had not been alert for years before this. From where, then, does a clear-eyed Reagan suddenly surface?

At the very moment when his body was so far gone as to yield to death, Ronald Reagan became animated — himself again. If a body is broken, why does it not naturally and successively proceed from almost dead to actually dead? If we flatten the tires on a car, drain its oil, and pull half it spark plugs, do we expect it to have one last burst of blazing performance before it finally sputters and dies?

Perhaps it is like the runner, who after exhausting all resources at the end of the race finds in himself one final burst of speed for the finish line. But this is not an accurate analogy, because the racer does indeed have something left to give. He is simply very low on carbohydrates and is inhibited by the pain of lactic acid buildup in his muscles, which makes him pace himself to the end. In that last burst, he is drawing on the remainder of his resources but could not hope to continue long in this. To be an accurate analogy, we would first have to sever some tendons and break some bones. No matter how brave or determined one is he cannot get far or fast on broken legs.

The other problem with this analogy is that a runner can will to briefly overcome his fatigue. But here we are speaking about the very thing from which something like a will is supposed to originate: the brain. In the materialist paradigm there could be no Ronald "in there" to triumph over his failing brain — a brain so destroyed that it could no longer even support life itself.

So what happened that night: one final power surge resulting in the shutdown of a fragile system, or a man rising from his broken body to say farewell before passing on? Ron Reagan Jr's heart is urging the latter. But how can he maintain this as an atheist? As most atheists I'm sure that he thinks of himself as an eminently rational creature. But to be consistent, I think he must either give up his materialism or give up his sentimental notion that something extraordinary happened that Saturday afternoon.

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October 03, 2008

The Financial Crisis - Who's Responsible?

I don't know much about economics, so this whole financial meltdown has not been easy to follow. It would be nice to understand the cause, but there is so much political spin surrounding the issue that it's difficult to trust either side. However, it does seem possible to make some good criticisms even if only on principle alone, and that is exactly how some are assessing blame.

Those on the Left, eager to cast blame on their opponents, have done so in two ways. First, they point out that this is a problem in lack of oversight and the Republicans are the party of deregulation. Second, they claim that Republicans have been the party in power for the last several years, so this happened on their watch. Let's take each of these ideas in turn.


The first thing that should be noted is that "regulation" does not necessarily equal "good." Governmental agencies are monuments to regulation, but we almost universally view these things to be models of waste and inefficiency. Even so, one of the biggest financial headaches, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are regulated in a very profound way: they are underwritten by the government! If these organizations did not have such a safety net, then perhaps there would have been more caution in their policies. That certainly makes theoretical sense.

Additionally, as I understand it, there is some measure of oversight for these organizations. If we are to examine guiding principles in assessing blame, then we must determine whose principles would be most likely to lead to a relaxing of fiscally responsible standards in this governmental oversight. Since the Democratic Party is ostensibly the party of charity and compassion, would we not expect that it would seek to do everything in its power to get financial assistance to those who might otherwise not attain it? But granting loans to low-income persons exposes us to certain financial risks. Isn't a big part of the problem that we are saddled with the burden of high-risk loans that never should have been granted in the first place? Where might we be now if qualification for loans had been more difficult to come by, as those heartless Republicans would have it? But to some minds, being heartless and being responsible seem indistinguishable. It is a distinction that often needs to be made to children.

The Party in Power

It is always amusing (and frustrating) to see how blame is assessed based on who is or was in power. It seems to be a no-win situation. If your party is in power in the White House or Congress, then you can take credit for any good thing that comes to pass. But any bad thing can be blamed on the consequences of the last administration, or the fact that you don't control both the legislative and executive branches. So, all the failings of the current Democratic controlled Congress can be blamed either on the fallout of the prior years when it was controlled by the Republicans or on the president himself. But even when the issues in question can be immediately traced to the present term, there is still the option to blame the other party for blocking your efforts. That, in particular, may be the key to answering the charge that while the Republicans controlled Congress they failed to put the needed limits on Freddie and Fannie.

I was curious as to whether or not the Democrat's blame had any true warrant. One suspicion that it had not was found in the fact that most everyone who pointed an accusing finger did so on these general grounds. Usually when someone has the goods they point to specific events or quotes. I have not yet seen this, but I have been hearing some incriminating charges against many Democrats from conservative commentators (interestingly, the liberals are saying things like, "there's enough blame to go around," and "let's not start playing the blame game"). So, I decided to do a quick search of my own to see what I could come up with. Here is just a sampling of what I found.

From Sept 30, 1999: Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending

Fannie Mae, the nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people

From Sept 11, 2003: New Agency Proposed to Oversee Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae

The Bush administration today recommended the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis a decade ago.

. . .

Among the groups denouncing the proposal today were the National Association of Home Builders and Congressional Democrats who fear that tighter regulation of the companies could sharply reduce their commitment to financing low-income and affordable housing.

''These two entities -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- are not facing any kind of financial crisis,'' said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. ''The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing.''

Representative Melvin L. Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, agreed.

From April 2, 2004: Panel Approves Mortgage Company Bill

Legislation giving regulators the power to take over the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if they become insolvent narrowly won approval Thursday in a partisan vote by a Senate panel. Prospects for Senate passage appeared dim, however.

. . .

The Republican-written bill was adopted by the Senate Banking Committee, 12 to 9, mostly along party lines.

. . .

But Democrats on the committee warned that creating the possibility of receivership would give excessive power to the regulators that could harm the two companies.

. . .

[T]he minority Democrats would very likely use procedural rules of the Senate to block its passage.

From April 6, 2005: Greenspan Urges Better Regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Appearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Mr. Greenspan said the enormous portfolios of the companies - nearly a quarter of the home mortgage market - posed significant risks to the nation's financial system should either of the companies face extensive problems.

. . .

The two companies have been formidable lobbying forces and been able to block attempts made by lawmakers

. . .

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, criticized Mr. Greenspan's recommendation and called it both inconsistent with his other views on regulation and potentially damaging to the housing markets. Without identifying anyone in particular, he also suggested that some people who have advanced tougher regulation of the two housing finance companies are really pushing a broader agenda to eliminate the companies and their mission of providing affordable housing.

From: Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005

For years I [John McCain] have been concerned about the regulatory structure that governs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--known as Government-sponsored entities or GSEs--and the sheer magnitude of these companies and the role they play in the housing market. OFHEO's report this week does nothing to ease these concerns. In fact, the report does quite the contrary. OFHEO's report solidifies my view that the GSEs need to be reformed without delay.

I join as a cosponsor of the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005, S. 190, to underscore my support for quick passage of GSE regulatory reform legislation. If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole.

And this recent summary article: Blame Fannie Mae and Congress For the Credit Mess

In the wake of Freddie's 2003 accounting scandal, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan became a powerful opponent, and began to call for stricter regulation

. . .

Fannie and Freddie retained the support of many in Congress, particularly Democrats, and they were allowed to continue unrestrained.

. . .

Sen. McCain's criticisms are at least credible, since he has been pointing to systemic risks in the mortgage market and trying to do something about them for years. In contrast, Sen. Obama's conversion as a financial reformer marks a reversal from his actions in previous years, when he did nothing to disturb the status quo.

. . .

Now the Democrats are blaming the financial crisis on "deregulation." This is a canard.

. . .

If the Democrats had let the 2005 legislation come to a vote, the huge growth in the subprime and Alt-A loan portfolios of Fannie and Freddie could not have occurred, and the scale of the financial meltdown would have been substantially less. The same politicians who today decry the lack of intervention to stop excess risk taking in 2005-2006 were the ones who blocked the only legislative effort that could have stopped it.

Why the McCain campaign is not hammering the Dems over this is a mystery to me.


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