Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Friday, January 30, 2015

Without excuse?

What do you see when you look out at the world? Do you see the wonder of nature? Perhaps you see the hand of God everywhere? Whatever your view of the world, we can all agree on many things. For example, there is a great deal of complexity in the natural world. Although scientists study nature in many different fields, there is still a lot we do not know and a lot we do not understand.

It is common for Christadelphians to cite Romans 1:20 to assert that atheists are "without excuse" because God has supposedly provided all of the evidence that anyone could ever need, and it's all right before our eyes.

So am I without excuse?

Romans 1:18-20 says the following:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.(NET)
If I understand this line of argument correctly, Paul is saying that creation is somehow obvious and self-evident, such that everyone immediately knows, just by looking, that God exists and that he created everything.

I find this argument bizarre. I just don't follow the thought process behind it. Paul is basically saying that the only explanation for how the world and its inhabitants came about is that his god created them. He is also saying that there cannot possibly be any other valid explanation, and moreover, that everyone who is alive or has ever lived knows this already. This is clearly false. Ever since the dawn of human existence people have been dreaming up explanations for the origins of the world. Paul's explanation for the origin of the world and of life is just one among many explanations, each based on little more than primitive observation and a whole lot of incredulity. In fact probably the only explanation that is backed by good evidence is abiogenesis, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Paul doesn't even explain why he believes nature points to his god being the creator. His argument seems to suggest that because we don't understand everything about how the world came about, therefore God must have done it. To me this reads like "I don't know/understand X, therefore the answer must be Y". It's a complete non-sequitur.

Paul also appears to be unaware of every other belief system ever invented, none of which share a belief in his god. In fact, far more people who ever lived have disagreed with Paul's view of god, than those who have agreed. This evidence strongly suggests that Paul's god isn't as self-evident as he seems to think. Paul even apparently confronted such people in Athens - why else did he need to preach to people who had never heard of his god? His argument is refuted by his own preaching!

Now obviously I do understand a little about why people think the natural world was designed by some kind of intelligent being, but I think their reasoning is flawed, and I'll explain why I think that.

I think by far the most common reason why people reject a natural origin is because they simply don't understand or cannot fathom how it could be possible, and therefore they conclude that it is not possible. This is known as the argument from personal incredulity.

Apparent design
Many people fail to distinguish between something that was designed and something that merely looks like it was designed. To ask "who" designed the world is simply begging the question. We cannot ask that question before determining whether the world was indeed designed.

How do we tell if something really was designed? You may be familiar with Paley's watchmaker analogy.
In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. ... There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. ... Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
How did Paley determine that the watch was not natural? He says that he would not have given the same answer for the watch as he did for the stone. Why not? It is here that his entire line of reasoning falls apart.

Firstly, the watch is known to be different by contrasting it with the stone. That is, we can determine natural vs unnatural things by contrast. They are different, and it is through their differences that we can determine that one of them is not natural. Secondly, the watch is identified as something designed by a human because we have prior knowledge of watches and also prior knowledge of the kinds of machines that humans can build. We also have zero prior knowledge of watches being produced by the forces of nature.
Thus, based on the contrast with nature, and our prior experience, we can reasonably deduce that the watch was probably designed and manufactured by a human.

But Paley tries to see similarities instead of contrast. He claims that every manifestation of design that existed in the watch, also exists in nature. He also says that nature is even more complex than the watch. This is a strange argument. If nature is more complex than the watch, then how could he claim that the watch was too complex to have arisen naturally? Moreover, if all of the elements in the watch also exist in nature, then how could Paley conclude that the watch wasn't natural?

If nature was also designed, then Paley is now standing in a field full of "watches" and deciding that the one he had just found is somehow special.

All of this appears to be based on the oft-repeated claim that complexity cannot arise naturally. This claim is demonstrably false. For example, we are surrounded by examples of complexity arising naturally. A fully formed baby is far more complex than the egg and sperm that produced it. Are we to believe that supernatural forces are at work every time a baby is conceived? Or every time a seed is planted in the ground? I think not. Clearly the laws of physics and nature are capable of producing complexity, given the right conditions.

Let's look at another argument. Suppose it was determined that the earth and everything on it was designed. What does that tell us? In Paley's watchmaker analogy, he deduced that a watch must require a watch-maker. People use this analogy to claim that the Earth was designed by God. But that's taking one leap too many. Watchmakers don't make cars or bridges. Cars would require a car-maker, and bridges would require a bridge-maker. If we are going to stay true to the analogy, we need tree-makers, river-makers and lion-makers. We would be better off with a primitive worldview where each individual element had its own god associated with it. We wouldn't end up with just one god but a whole pantheon of gods, each with their own speciality. For example, Ra, god of the sun and Shu, god of wind. Welcome to ancient Egypt.

To jump to just one god is an extra leap. On what basis? Economy? Perhaps gods are expensive, and fewer gods help to keep costs down. I'm all for efficiency, but in order to reduce the number of gods, we need to increase the number of things this god can do, and that means stretching the credibility further. But in the end we still don't know who or what this hypothetical god is.

That's the problem with gods. They often lack definition.

Which god?
Arguments from design can only ever lead to deism, the belief that a powerful being created the world. It doesn't say who or what this being is. It tells us nothing about it, and nothing about the process of creation. One of the most poetic ideas I've encountered is that of a god whose final dying act resulted in the Big Bang.

Even if the world was created by a god, how do you know which god? Just because the Bible claims it was Yahweh doesn't make it true. Other holy books claim that other gods were responsible, with no greater or lesser authority. All of them have devotees who are just as convinced of their god as you are of yours.

To go from "There must be a god who created the world" to "It was Yahweh" is quite a leap. Where is the evidence for this?

For all we know the world could have been created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

By their fruits you shall know them
So how do we determine what sort of god created the earth and everything on it? Well Romans 1:20 offers a brilliant suggestion. Paul says we can understand the qualities and attributes of God by looking at what he has (apparently) made. What a great idea!

The problem is that Christadelphians want us to believe that the view of the world presented in their children's picture bible is accurate, and that the world is a wonderful, fluffy place full of kittens and marshmallows. Instead of what we really see, which is a world full of suffering and death. We've all experienced times when we've put on a nature documentary for the kids to watch, only to be greeted with scenes of merciless bloodshed and terror.

Paul says we can determine the attributes of God through the things he created. So tell me, what sort of god would create parasitic wasps, who lay their eggs inside a ladybug, or a spider, only for the larvae to eat their way out of the host?

What sort of god would create the "loa loa eye worm", an African worm whose only way to survive is to burrow through a human eyeball, rendering the person blind!

What sort of god would create the animals on the African savannah, all living in a desperate battle of survival, where the only way for many of them to survive is by killing other animals? What about diseases that have wiped out millions of animals and people, and natural disasters that make acts of terrorism look tiny by comparison?

What about the wider universe? Yes, the pictures from deep space are awe-inspiring, but they're also a tale of horrific destruction on a scale we can scarcely imagine! The craters on earth and especially the moon are testament to the early bombardment by asteroids, one of which is believed to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

But there's one thing in particular that for me really shows the true colours of this god, if such a being exists. It stands out above all else in my opinion. And that is the gratuitous suffering and deaths of millions of children and animals worldwide, due to hunger, natural disasters, and disease. You can argue all you like that humans are guilty before God because they have done evil deeds, but children are innocent. They haven't harmed anyone. They are guilty of nothing. Yet if there is a god out there, it watches silently, and does nothing. Any being capable of creating the earth would be equally capable of healing these children, and giving them a better life, but it doesn't. In some countries, few of them will reach adulthood. I can only conclude that such a god is either unable to help them, or chooses not to. Neither of those options are reconcilable with the Christadelphian view. It seems far more likely to me that either no god exists, or it isn't interested in us.

Adam and Eve?
Oh sure it's convenient to say that this is all the result of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, but that doesn't resolve the issue. Paul wasn't talking about thousands of years in the past, he was talking about the present. And he clearly said that we can know God's attributes by the things he created, as they are seen today. If that's the case, arguing that the earth is in some kind of "fallen" state does not solve the problem.

Besides, are you really claiming that Adam and Eve forced God to create this hostile and horrifying animal kingdom? Isn't God all-powerful? Apparently because Adam and Eve ate some fruit, God had no choice but to inflict pain and suffering on the entire animal kingdom and all their descendants from that point onwards. Really? But it was totally Adam and Eve's fault. Again, really? Didn't God know well in advance that this would happen, and yet he did nothing to stop it? Didn't he create the initial conditions that led to this happening, and knew all along that it would? Isn't that what the Bible says?

Of course most Christadelphians will claim that Adam and Eve had "free will" (whatever that means) and think that is a reasonable answer. It isn't. Free will or not, the Bible admits that humans were created with natural lusts and that the circumstances that Adam and Eve were placed in would engage those lusts and lead to a natural conclusion. It doesn't take a god to see the likely outcome. Just put chocolate in front of a toddler, tell them not to eat it, and leave the room. It also doesn't take a god to see that there are so many ways this scenario could have been avoided.

Meanwhile, the story is actually so simple that it is obvious it was written for a theological purpose. It reads exactly like a fairy tale, designed to explain the reason for all the suffering in the world. The real story behind this is that the writers of the bible were aware that the "problem of evil" (as it is more commonly known) required an explanation. If anything, it is an acknowledgement that what we see in nature does not reconcile with the god they believed in. Thus the "garden of Eden" story was born to try to explain why.

What many Christadelphians don't realise is that the garden of Eden story actually has a close parallel in Sumerian mythology, written many centuries earlier than Genesis. The Sumerian paradise is set in Dilmun, a divine garden paradise where sickness and death do not exist.

Perhaps the most interesting result of our comparative analysis of the Sumerian poem is the explanation which it provides for one of the most puzzling motifs in the biblical paradise story, the famous passage describing the fashioning of Eve, "the mother of all living", from the rib of Adam - for why a rib? Why did the Hebrew storyteller find it more fitting to choose a rib rather than any other organ of the body for the fashioning of the woman whose name, Eve, according to the biblical notion, means approximately "she who makes live". The reason becomes quite clear if we assume a Sumerian literary background, such as that represented by our Dilmun poem, to underly the biblical paradise tale; for in our Sumerian poem, one of Enki's sick organs is the rib. Now the Sumerian word for "rib" is ti (pronounced tee); the goddess created for the healing of Enki's rib was therefore called in Sumerian Nin-ti "the Lady of the rib". But the Sumerian word ti also means "to make live" as well as "the Lady of the rib". In Sumerian literature, therefore, "the Lady of the rib" came to be identified with "the Lady who makes live" through what may be termed a play on words. It was this, one of the most ancient of literary puns, which was carried over and perpetuated in the biblical paradise story, although there, of course, the pun loses its validity, since the Hebrew words for "rib" and "who makes live" have nothing in common.

Perhaps you should also have a look at the Epic of Gilgamesh too.

I don't know, therefore God?
Creationists sometimes argue that since science doesn't know everything about everything, therefore the answer is God. This doesn't follow. A lack of information on the one hand does not automatically make another view correct. If God is to be the answer, he needs to stand on his own merits and his own evidence. So how would you prove the existence of God, in such a way that someone of a different faith couldn't do the same with their god?

Often I hear people point to gaps in scientific understanding. In this scenario, "God" simply becomes a label for all of the things science has not yet discovered. Or, to put it another way, "God" becomes a label for everything we don't yet know. To put it even more bluntly, when people use this argument, they are essentially worshipping their own ignorance. It is known as a "god of the gaps" argument, because people use the gaps in scientific understanding as evidence for the existence of God. The obvious problem is that as scientific understanding increases, the gaps get narrower, and God diminishes. I prefer the analogy of the curtain being pulled back ever further, and there is no one behind it.

So what do I believe then?
Consider the possibility that the "designer" was not a conscious being at all, but rather a process or something analogous to the laws of physics. Where did the laws of physics come from, you might ask? Same place you think your god came from.

It is easy to demonstrate how natural selection combined with random mutation can produce the appearance of design.

In any given species, random mutation will generate a huge number of variations. Natural selection will determine which variations will survive and which will not. Thus, the ones that survive and pass on their genes to the next generation are the ones who are best adapted to their environment. By producing animals that are more adapted to their environment, you could say that natural selection is the "designer". Note that natural selection is not a random process. In fact it is the opposite of random.

If you don't understand evolution then you're never going to understand why I accept it. However, evolution doesn't explain the origin of life itself, and nor is it supposed to. That is a separate area of science, known as abiogenesis. Great discoveries are often being made in this area, such as the spontaneous formation of metabolism, self-assembly of RNA, and the spontaneous generation of amino acids, to name a few. However, we still have a way to go.
"Science doesn't know everything. Otherwise it'd stop."
- Dara O’Briain
So what to do in the face of incomplete knowledge? That's easy - I'll admit I don't know all the answers. Neither do you.

But not knowing the answer to something does not give anyone license to just insert whatever fairy tale most appeals to them. You say it requires faith, but I ask you: How do you tell the difference between faith and self-deception? I suggest they are indistinguishable.

Suppose there is a god out there who wants me to believe in it. Why does it insist on remaining hidden? This god must also know exactly the kind of evidence that would convince me of its existence, and if it chooses not to provide said evidence, how will I believe? And if I "just have faith", what if I put faith in the wrong god?

Belief is not a choice. If you think belief is a choice, try going to the top of a tall building, then just choose to believe that gravity isn't real and step out of the window. If belief is a choice, it should be an easy thing to do. I suggest you pack a parachute.

Occam's Razor
Finally, I want to return to the original question. How did it all come about? Paul insists that the natural world necessarily demands belief in a creator god, and not just any old god either. He insists that the natural world makes it clear that Yahweh, the god of the Bible, created it all.

I beg to differ.

How do we determine what is true?
We do experiments, and test the results. We use the scientific method. The scientific method confirms evolution, and it confirms the inner workings of the natural world. It can tell us how the world came to be, without any reference to a god. I often hear the objection that science relies on methodological naturalism and thus cannot test for a god. Fair enough, but what can test for God? If people are so sure that the supernatural must exist, how do they know? Without the scientific method, how do we determine that anything is true?

How do we determine what is likely?
By experience. 200 years ago people thought it was unlikely that humans would ever fly. Today we fly all the time, and some people have even been into space. What I suggest to you is this. If we have prior knowledge or experience of something, it becomes more likely (to us). Things we have no prior knowledge of, or have never experienced, are perceived as less likely than those things we do have prior knowledge or experience of.

I am aware of natural causes for a range of different phenomena. This has been confirmed repeatedly. I am not aware of any supernatural cause ever being confirmed, and nor am I aware of any method for doing so. Anyone who claims that the supernatural exists, must provide evidence for their claim. The natural has been proven to exist. You may say that I am biased towards naturalism. I am also biased towards evidence, too.

Thus when faced with a range of explanations, some natural and some relying on supernatural things, natural explanations will always seem far more likely. This is true for most people, whether you agree or not. Almost no one today thinks that rainbows are caused by magic. That is because we have a natural explanation (light refracting off water droplets in the air) and thus we have no need of a supernatural one.

Occam's razor is also useful in these cases. Put simply:
The principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
Both natural and supernatural hypotheses for the creation of earth and life upon it share similar assumptions in general, but the supernatural hypotheses will always carry one additional assumption - the existence of a deity or deities. Thus Occam's razor will always favour a naturalistic explanation.

Paul claims that I am without excuse. If that were the case, doesn't that mean I really must know deep down that there is a god, and therefore I'm just somehow pretending not to believe? Wouldn't that require that I was aware of this, and that I'm supposedly trying really hard to deny the beliefs that I surely must hold?

This idea is nonsense! I simply don't believe in God. That is, I don't hold a positive belief in any deity. Perhaps there is one, or more than one. All I am saying is that I am unaware of any compelling evidence for the existence of any gods. I am also aware of plenty of gods who were invented by superstitious people. I see very little difference between those gods and the god of the Bible. I also see nothing in the Bible that a human couldn't have written. Without a god, reality makes sense. It isn't always a nice pretty picture, but reality is not obliged to conform to our wishes. It's time to put the children's books away and face it.

Nature does not convince me of God. The fact that it is complex does not mean we can jump to whatever conclusion takes our fancy. It means we should study it more. Only once we understand it will we be in a position to answer the question of its origins. Trying to answer the question from a position of ignorance is no better than blind guessing. You could be right, but you'd be right only by accident.

On the other hand, science is our best tool for understanding the natural world. The effectiveness of science is indisputable, and it has led to amazing discoveries and made our societies healthier and safer.

Science also provides indisputable evidence for the evolution of all living things on earth. If you are unaware of such evidence, or if you haven't spent the time to read and understand it, then perhaps you are the one who is without excuse!