Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Fine Tuning Argument

Another argument used by creationists and theists as proof of celestial design is the so-called "fine tuning of the universe." It turns out that the existence of a universe that permits life as we know it depends heavily on the size of certain constants in the laws of physics. If, for example, the charge of the electron were slightly different, or if the disparity in mass between a proton and a neutron were slightly larger, or if other constants varied by more than a few percent, the universe would differ in important ways. Stars would not live long enough to allow life to emerge and evolve, there would be no solar systems, and the universe would lack the elements and the complex chemistry necessary for building organisms. In other words, we inhabit what is called a "Goldilocks universe," where nature's laws are just right to allow life to evolve and to thrive. This observation is called "the anthropic principle."

At first glance, its explanation appears trivial. As Ken Miller says, "Taking as a starting point the observation that you and I are alive, at least in the immediate present, it's obvious that we must live in a universe where life is possible. If we didn't, we wouldn't be here to talk about it. So, in a certain sense the fact that we live in a life-friendly universe merits little more than a big 'Duh.'" True. But this raises a deeper question: why do the constants of the universe just happen to have those life-promoting values? The answer given by creationists is that this is no accident: a beneficent God (or an intelligent designer) crafted those physical laws precisely so that somewhere in the universe intelligent life would evolve--life so intelligent that it could work out the laws of physics and, more important, apprehend their creator. This answer--known as the strong anthropic principle--is scientifically untestable, but it sounds so reasonable that it has become one of the biggest guns in the creationist arsenal. (It is important to grasp that anthropic principles concern the conditions required for the existence of any life, and say nothing about the inevitability of complex and intelligent life.)

Also, scientists have other explanations, ones based on reason rather than on faith. Perhaps some day, when we have a "theory of everything" that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe. Alternatively, there are intriguing "multiverse" theories that invoke the appearance of many universes, each with different physical laws; and we could have evolved only in one whose laws permit life. The physicist Lee Smolin has suggested a fascinating version of multiverse theory. Drawing a parallel with natural selection among organisms, Smolin proposed that physical constants of universes actually evolve by a type of "cosmological selection" among universes. It turns out that each black hole--and there are millions in our universe--might give rise to a new universe, and these new universes could have physical constants different from those of their ancestors. (This is analogous to mutation in biological evolution.) And universes with physical constants close to the ones we see today happen to be better at producing more black holes, which in turn produce more universes. (This resembles natural selection.) Eventually this process yields a population of universes enriched in those having just the right properties to produce stars (the source of black holes), planets, and life. Smolin's theory immensely raises the odds that life could appear.

The idea of multiple universes may seem like a desperate move--a Hail Mary thrown out by physicists who are repelled by religious explanations. But physics is full of ideas that are completely counterintuitive, and multiverse theories fall naturally out of long-standing ideas of physics. They represent physicists' attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for what others see as evidence of design. For many scientists, multiverses seem far more reasonable than the solipsistic assumption that our own universe with its 10,000,000,000, 000,000 planets was created just so a single species of mammal would evolve on one of them fourteen billion years later.

Jerry Coyne

The full article, Seeing and Believing, can be read here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Quote of the Week

A Christian is a man who feels repentance on Sunday for what he did on Saturday, and what he is going to do on Monday.

Thomas Ybarra

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

On January 27, 1987, I was led as a lamb to the slaughter, having been set up to debate the Rev. Dr. Norman Geisler of Dallas Theological Seminary on the subject, "Humanism vs. Christianity." Dubbed by its promoters as "The Main Event," the debate was held in the ballroom at Auburn University, a room overflowing with perhaps 2,000 people, some of whom had been bused in, courtesy of local churches.

Geisler had trouble staying on the general topic, focusing rather on abortion, in the most grisly terms. Humanists, he tells, are right in there with the Nazis in disregard of human life. Their despicable deeds are made likely, if not inevitable, by their moral relativism. How much firmer is the ground under Christians, who stand on moral absolutes!

During rebuttal, I said that my favorite moral absolute in scripture was in Luke 6:30 where Jesus is reported to have said, "Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again." I then turned to the Rev. Dr. Geisler and asked him for his money. Since it was not forthcoming, I knelt on one knee and begged for it, trying to cover all spiritual bases.

With a pale look about his gills, he finally pulled out a dollar bill and waved it wanly at me to which I said, "No, not a dollar; I want all of your money. But I'm not mean; I won't keep your wallet or credit cards." Geisler did not, in fact, comply with the moral absolute in Luke 6:30 (also see Matthew 5:42 and Luke 6:35). If he had given me his money, I would have taken it and kept it. Thus, we would both have been blessed, I with extra cash and he with a clear conscience for having met the challenge of obeying a moral absolute of his lord. I fear his conscience still troubles him over this episode, something I would gladly have spared him by keeping his money.

Bibliolaters are so fond of moral absolutes that I believe the rest of us should oblige them by giving them every opportunity to act thereupon. When you next hear a Christian extolling the rock of moral absolutes upon which he or she stands, go for the cash. It has a sobering effect that may in the long run be beneficial.

Delos McKown

The original article is here, brought to my attention by Unreasonable Faith.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why Can't Science Address The Existence of Gods?

Why can't science address the existence of gods? Why should we simply sit back and accept the claim of apologists that what they believe in is not subject to "observation, measurement, and experiment"?

In the United States today, we have tens of thousands of priests, rabbis, mullahs, pastors, and preachers who are paid professionals, who claim to be active and functioning mediators between people and omnipotent invisible masters of the universe. They make specific claims about their god's nature, what he's made of and what he isn't, how he thinks and acts, what you should do to propitiate it…they somehow seem to have amazingly detailed information about this being. Yet, when a scientist approaches with a critical eye, suddenly it is a creature that not only has never been observed, but cannot observed, and its actions invisible, impalpible, and immaterial.

So where did these confident promoters of god-business get their information? Shouldn't they be admitting that their knowledge of this elusive cosmic beast is nonexistent? It seems to me that if you're going to declare scientists helpless before the absence and irrelevance of the gods, you ought to declare likewise for all of god's translators and interpreters. Be consistent when you announce who has purview over all religious belief, because making god unobservable and immeasurable makes everyone incapable of saying anything at all about it.

And what of those many millions of ordinary people who claim to have daily conversations with this entity? That is an impressive conduit for all kinds of testable information: a high bandwidth channel between the majority of people on Earth and a friendly, omniscient source of knowledge, and it isn't named Google. All these queries, and all these answers, and yet, somehow, none of these answers have enough meaning or significance to represent a testable body of counsel. Amazing! You would think that in all that volume of communication, some tiny percentage of useful information would emerge that we could assess against reality, but no…the theologians, lay and professional alike, will all claim that no usable data can be produced that would satisfy a scientist looking for sense. It sounds like empty noise to me.

We have the supposed histories of these believers, and they are full of material actions. Gods throw lightning bolts to smite unbelievers, annihilate whole cities and nations, raise the dead, slay whole worlds of people, suspend the laws of physics to halt the sun in the sky, create the whole Earth in less than a week, help footballers score goals, and even manifest themselves in physical bodies and walk about, doing amazing magic tricks. Wow, O Lord, please do vaporize a city with a column of holy fire before my eyes — I can observe that, I can measure that, I can even do experiments with the rubble. I will be really impressed.

Oh, but wait: it can only be an unobservable, undetectable exercise in mass destruction? And he's not doing that sort of thing anymore? How about pulling a rabbit out of this hat? No, sorry, all done. God can't do anything anymore where people might actually notice, or worse, record the act and figure out how the tricks are done. This is awfully convenient.

This is where the "Science has no opinion on religion" argument leads us: to an atheist's world, where there are no activities by a god that matter, where at best people can claim that their god is aloof and unknowable, admitting in their own premises that they have no knowledge at all of him.

PZ Myers

The original post can be read here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Quote of the Week

We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.

Gene Roddenberry

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Warwick Atheists

I just discovered that my old university (Warwick, in the UK) now has an atheist society. It's a shame I left Warwick before this happened, but I'll do my bit now and give them a little publicity here. This is from their main page:

What’s the point in joining an atheist society? If God exists you are moving in the wrong direction and if God doesn’t exist then you are surely wasting your time!

Unfortunately, what other people believe also affects your life and the way in which you live it. If an individual believes something about the world that isn’t true and ends up impinging on the lives of everyone else then suddenly we have a problem.

What if vital medical research that could go a long way to curing a host of ghastly diseases is being held back? What if a deadly sexually transmitted virus is left to run rampant in the third world because people are taught that contraception is wrong? What if people, caught up too heavily in archaic mythology, turn against their neighbours and call for violence in the streets? And what if the cause of each of these atrocities is indeed a mistruth that is drilled into children from an early age, who are promised punishment for alternative thought?

You don’t have to be a rampant atheist (or an atheist at all) to think that these negative effects of various religions must be stopped.

They also have a forum. If you're a member and have stumbled across this blog, leave a comment!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln

He almost certainly wasn't an atheist, but he was undoubtedly liberal, progressive, moral and fiercely intelligent, four adjectives I wouldn't normally associate with the religious:

In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong.

Abraham Lincoln

Monday, February 9, 2009

Quote of the Week

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. The wise man said it out loud.

Chris W

I found this quote here, posted as a response to the anti-atheism bus ads.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Carnival of the Godless 110

One of my recent posts has been linked to in the latest edition of the Carnival of the Godless, so welcome to any readers arriving from there.

The post has also prompted a lengthy (attempted) rebuttal, which can be read over at Atheism is Dead. Commenters there have already started countering this rebuttal, so I'm not going to respond myself, but I can't resist posting this:

I stumbled across this blog, inappropriately titled "Atheist Wisdom", and went from intrigued to disappointed. No offense to the author, but any blog calling itself "Atheist Wisdom" should probably live up to the name, and this blog definitely doesn't.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Truth is Consistent with Itself

From the excellent blog Evangelical Realism, on the religious apologist's appeal to ignorance:

I do not claim that I can explain every strange thing that happens in life, I merely claim that truth is consistent with itself, and therefore I am confident that any future answers we may find will turn out to be consistent with the truth we already possess. But this is rather irrelevant to the particular issue under discussion here, since the question is not whether men are omniscient, but whether God shows up in real life. Man’s failure to know a particular answer does not constitute God showing up in real life. Ignorance is not knowledge. It’s as simple as that.

Appealing to ignorance is also a flawed approach when you consider the fact that the term “God,” as typically used, refers to a being about whom men claim to possess knowledge. We’re not postulating some being about which no one knows anything, whose existence might indeed be manifest only among the large body of answers we do not currently possess. A God who only “shows up” in the things we are ignorant of is a God who has not shown up. Showing up means we do know we’ve encountered Him; if we don’t know, then He hasn’t done it, and if He hasn’t shown up, then we’re back to the undeniable fact and its inescapable consequence. In God’s absence, the closest we can come to faith is to gullibly put our trust in whatever men tell us about God, despite the contradictions and inconsistencies.

Besides, we don’t need to appeal to ignorance, because we can use the evidence we do have to evaluate the different claims. I claim that God does not show up in real life. Test me. See for yourself, by real world observation, whether or not God does show up. I do not know you. I’ve never met you. I know nothing about your life. How is it, then, that I can know God has never literally, materially, personally shown up in your life? How can I be right 100% of the time? Easy: the truth is consistent with itself.

Deacon Duncan

Read the full article here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Quote of the Week

Prayer has no place in the public schools, just like facts have no place in organized religion.

Superintendent Chalmers

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Misconceptions About Atheism

Sam Harris at his best:

Via Josh Stein.