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 ~

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Could I be wrong? (Nature, Origin of Life)

Anyone who is honest with themselves and their beliefs will often ask themselves the question "Could I be wrong?". It's a very good question to ask ourselves.

There are many reasons why I no longer believe in gods or goddesses, and also why I no longer believe that the Bible, nor any other holy book, was written by such a deity. I don't intend to list them all here. Readers of this blog would already be familiar with many of them.

However, it would be more accurate to phrase it slightly differently and say that I have no good reason to believe that any holy book was divinely inspired, nor that any gods or goddesses actually exist.

Could I be wrong?

Well sure. Everyone could be wrong. I am no exception.

What would being wrong mean in my case?

If I use the first form of the claim, then one or more of my reasons for no longer believing in these things could be invalid. But so what? Even if all of my reasons for disbelief were invalid, does that mean I should believe? I think not. Positive belief requires positive evidence. Proving one thing false or invalid does not automatically make another thing true or valid. Each positive claim must stand on its own evidence and merits. Belief in gods or goddesses is not the default position. The default position is always the null hypothesis, which in this case means a lack of belief. To go beyond this position, I need evidence.

On the other hand, if I take the second form of my claim above, being wrong would mean that I actually do have good reasons to believe that one or more holy books was divinely inspired, and/or that one or more gods or goddesses actually exist. If I'm wrong, either I must not be aware of these reasons, or I must not be aware that they are good reasons.

Good reasons to believe

So could I be wrong when I say that I have no good reason to believe that any holy book was divinely inspired, nor that any gods or goddesses actually exist?

Of course!

In fact many people feel that they do have good reason to believe these things. So why don't their reasons work for me?

Well, there are several reasons that people use in support of their faith, which I will now explore. Since covering all of these reasons in a single article would make the article far too long, I'm going to break them up into several articles.

So let's begin...

Reason 1: Nature proves the existence of God
"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."
-Paul of Tarsus (Romans 1:20 NET)
Many people are overwhelmed by the complexity and beauty of nature, and feel that this complexity is excellent evidence of a master designer at work. This belief is often guided by intuition, and thus it is difficult to provide the logical steps required to make this inference. One such attempt can be found in William Paley's Watchmaker Analogy, which I find rather confusing, and which I have addressed before.

The suggestion is that complexity can only be the product of something even more complex, and further, that it must be the product of an intelligent agent. The problem is that this is merely blind assertion, without any evidence to support it. If we assume that complexity must be the result of intelligence, and then go on to determine that everything in nature is complex, we have already assumed the conclusion that nature must be the result of intelligence. We have come no closer to demonstrating that complexity can only arise from intelligent agency. Instead we have merely decreed it to be so.

In fact counter-examples do exist in nature. One such example is snowflakes, which come in very intricate and complex forms, yet are known to be produced by non-living, unintelligent, natural processes. The same is true of crystals. The premise that complexity cannot arise purely from natural processes, is false.

Also, the idea of complexity only arising from something even more complex obviously leads to an infinite regress. If God created the universe, he must be more complex than the universe. So who or what created God? Intelligent Design proponents get around this by arguing, without justification, that God existed forever and thus did not need to be created by something more complex, despite his apparent complexity. Apparently you can just make up the rules as you go along. How convenient!

On the other hand, the theory of evolution provides an excellent scientific explanation for the wide variety and abundance of living organisms in the world. We now understand many of the mechanisms by which new species arise, and also the mechanisms for how changes take place within a species from one generation to the next. There is an abundance of clear evidence from the fossil record, genetics, biology, and geology that all points to the same conclusion that life evolved on this planet gradually over billions of years. In fact there is so much evidence that even without the fossil record we could still demonstrate that all living things have a common ancestor, from the study of genetics alone! You can discover some of the evidence for evolution by clicking here.

So returning to the quote from Paul in Romans 1:20, I would argue that what has traditionally been interpreted as definitive proof of the existence of divine power, when studied more closely using the scientific method, turns out to point instead towards evolution via natural processes.

Some may see evolution as still being evidence of divine creation, but they can provide no evidence to justify such a conclusion, nor do they propose any test that might allow us to find out. The strength of the theory of evolution is that natural selection is essentially blind and undirected, and mutations are random. For a god to be directing evolution, one or both of these aspects of the theory must be false. Otherwise, any theory of evolution involving a deity produces much the same outcome as a theory without a deity, and thus the latter is to be favoured by Occam's razor.

Thus, in my estimation, evolution via natural processes is the best explanation for the variety and abundance of life on earth. The idea of a deity being involved adds nothing to the theory, and thus can be discarded as irrelevant.

Reason 2: God is necessary to explain the origin of life on Earth, or some other phenomenon

As for how life arose in the first place, that is a more complicated question. Science is making good progress towards answering how life arose from non-living material. For example it can be demonstrated via experiment that amino acids, the building blocks of life, can form spontaneously through natural processes. Many steps of the process are known to occur naturally. However, it may be some time before the entire process is known and accounted for.

Of course, one is free to say "God did it", but I am not sure how that explains anything. It seems to me to be a way of saying "I give up" and simply walking away. It provides no new information and appears to be simply a cop-out answer given by people who are afraid of not having an answer.

Let me explain further. Suppose people were trying to figure out why or how planets orbit the sun.

One group of scientists tries to create a model of the solar system and looks for natural laws and processes (i.e. gravity) that might explain the motion of the planets. They also come up with mathematical formulas that can predict the exact path that planets will take around the sun, as well as ways to test the model to confirm its accuracy. (Of course, history tells us that this is exactly what scientists such as Isaac Newton did)

A second group of people simply claims that "Fred made the planets orbit the sun". When asked who Fred was, they replied that Fred was an all-powerful being outside space and time, and as such there was no way to observe or test whether Fred even exists. This group also provided no mechanism to explain how Fred made the planets orbit the sun. They just asserted it as true, and expected others to believe them without any evidence.

Which group actually provided a real explanation? Obviously it is the first group - the scientists.

The same analogy is true for most areas where people use "God" as the answer or explanation for something. If you replace "God" with "Fred", you can often see that it actually provides no explanation at all.

Thus, in my estimation, even though science doesn't know everything, the scientific method is the best way to find out things about the universe and about our reality. Other methods have not yet been demonstrated to be effective, and arguing that "God did it" often isn't an explanation at all.

As for the origin of life on Earth, the only honest answer is that we simply don't know the whole story (yet). That's true for everyone, not just the scientists. A belief in God doesn't answer the questions, it just discourages you from asking more.