March 4, 2009

Answering “Questions For Atheists” #2

Posted in Atheism, Questions For Atheists tagged , , , , at 11:47 am by Andrew

Part 1 in this series can be found here.

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers reproduces a “Questions For Atheists” handout being distributed by a Christian group before a lecture by Richard Dawkins. The questions are in bold; my answers are in regular type.

1. Is there an objective truth (and where did it come from)?

There’s currently a discussion going on about this on the Answering Anselm thread, but in a nutshell: if objective truth exists, it exists descriptively rather than normatively. As such, truth does not “come from” a separate existence, so the parenthetical part of the question cannot be answered.

The example I give of objective truth, drawing from Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics, is that 1 + 4 = 5. Thus, even in a universe with no minds, when one rock rolls down a hill into a pile of four other rocks, the resulting pile has five rocks in it (assuming, obviously, that the rocks don’t crumble or what have you). This does not seem to be an argument for God.

Note, though, that even this assertion breaks down at the quantum level, where 1 can equal 2 — as in the double slit experiment, where an electron is literally in two places at once. Now, we have no reason to think that rocks behave like subatomic particles in a universe without minds, but I think the lesson is to exhibit significant caution before proclaiming that something like a universal, capital-T Truth necessarily “exists.”

2. Does evolution obey the second law of thermodynamics?

Obviously not. But I’m more concerned about what this sort of question says about the asker. 99.9% of biologists living today accept the theory of evolution — biologists from every nation, from all walks of life, of every political and religious background imaginable, including (obviously) Christians.

If evolution violated something as basic as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or any of the other facile arguments trumpeted by creationists, then evolution would be obviously false upon any sort of inspection. This necessarily means that every single person on the planet with a Ph.D. in biology is engaged in deliberate fraud; that the conspiracy suggested by Expelled is not only real but sweeps across every single nation on the globe. It means that every single biology student is approached at some point in their studies by some sort of shadowy X-filed character and recruited into the Secret Global Conspiracy to Prop Up Evolution.

Do Christians honestly believe that? Do they sincerely and seriously think that there’s a globe-spanning conspiracy to destroy Christianity by propping up a scientific theory so flawed that it contradicts what the average student learns in 7th grade science class?? I sincerely cannot wrap my head around that sort of thing.

(Let me add that I cannot figure out 9/11 Truthers and Moon Hoaxers, either — and there are, sadly, plenty of atheists in those camps.)

3. What are the statistical probabilities of life evolving from non-life, and the accidental evolution of a single strand of DNA.

From what we can tell, the statistical probabilities of life evolving from non-life — in the broadest sense — are fairly high. The famous Miller-Urey experiment produced organic compounds from non-organic ones overnight! (Nowadays, creationists like to quibble with whether the conditions set by the experiment matched the early Earth; that’s missing the forest for the trees. The point is that scientists stuck water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen in a jar and immediately produced the basic building blocks of life. Isn’t that amazing? And it goes without saying that ongoing research in this area is fruitful.)

The probability of a single strand of DNA appearing spontaneously is somewhat on the order of zero. Fortunately, no sane person thinks DNA appeared spontaneously.

But let’s take this one step further. If we can agree that it is virtually impossible that even a single strand of DNA would appear spontaneously, how much more unlikely is it that a God would do so?? (This is Dawkins’ Ultimate 747 Gambit.)

4. Why does the existence of God make Dawkins so angry, and how can a scientist say with absolute confidence that there is no god?

A. I don’t know; you’ll have to ask him. But I suspect that the times when Dawkins is angry probably have something to do with dedicating his life to studying evolutionary science, and then having some creationist nitwit tell him that he disproved evolution back in the 7th grade. See point 2. I feel the same way when I encounter non-lawyers who make preposterously stupid arguments; e.g., tax protestors.

B. Dawkins doesn’t say “with absolute confidence” that there is no God; in fact, he describes a pretty useful 7-point scale in The God Delusion and then puts himself somewhere between 6 and 7. I think this is a sensible approach, and it’s exactly the one I take as well.

5. Have you ever read the Bible?

Yes. There is much in the Bible that is beautiful and wonderful. However, on any kind of close inspection, the Bible looks like it was written by men of its time, and not by the all-powerful creator of the universe. How else can one explain why God explicitly commanded the Jews not to eat shellfish while permitting them to commit genocide and keep slaves?


  1. Ben said,

    You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to question evolution.

  2. Jenny said,

    Lots of people “question evolution” in a generic sense, but I don’t think there are any biologists who disagree with the theory of common descent.

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