April 30, 2009

A Short Response to the “Fine-Tuning Argument” (thanks, Siamang)

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Creationism, The Universe tagged , , , , , at 12:14 pm by Andrew

I think I was less than clear in my previous post on Francis Collins using creationist rhetoric to argue for the fine-tuning of the universe. That post was not really about the merits of Collins’ argument (which I think are dubious), but about Collins employing tactics that are indistinguishable from those trotted out by the garden-variety creationists against whom Collins still seeks to distinguish himself, including misappropriation of scientific credentials and intentionally misleading language.

With respect to the so-called “fine tuning” argument itself, I’ve noted that the universe is, to 37 significant figures, completely, 100% uninhabitable by humans. It strikes me as a very strange view of the facts when Christians characterize “100% uninhabitable” as “fine tuned for our unique benefit!”

Commenter Siamang makes another terrific point: the fine-tuning argument is vacuous because if the facts were exactly the opposite of what they are, creationists would be able to make the exact same argument! If the constraints of the universe were such that life was incredibly likely, that stars and planets would always form, then the very same Francis Collins-style creationists who declare that the universe is finely-tuned “on a razor’s edge” could make the exact same claims about divine providence in establishing a universe that would always be able to support us. But here, I’ll let Siamang say it, because he’s much pithier than I am:

What I want to know is, if the universe is fine-tuned, Who decided what settings the Tuner had to set the knobs to? I mean, if God was really God, couldn’t He create life in any kind of universe, not just the tuned ones? If God was merely following a recipe, then who wrote the laws that God was following?

I see these as fundamentally flawed competing claims:

[1.] The universe is fine-tuned for life. Therefore YAY GOD!
[2.] The universe is NOT fine-tuned for life, but life exists anyway. Therefore REALLY YAY GOD!

In any universe where life existed, beings using this argument are only extrapolating a God from the fact of their own existence. You don’t need to run this supposition through physics to come to this conclusion. That’s running around the barn to get a tool you’re already holding.

I don’t see a way, in principle, to rescue the “fine-tuning” argument from this criticism.

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More Advice on Atheist-Theist Debates

Posted in Advice for Debating..., Atheism tagged , , , , , at 11:45 am by Andrew

The principle reason I’ve written the “Advice for Debating William Lane Craig” series of posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5, or you can click on the “Advice for Debating…” tag) is to help spread the word about common debate techniques with which Christians seem (to me, at least) to be more familiar and better equipped to use. My goal is that when we atheists trot out our “big guns,” that everyone who watches the debate walks away with at least a healthy respect for the atheist performance.
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April 29, 2009

Francis Collins, Creationist

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Creationism tagged , , , , , at 3:00 pm by Andrew

Many atheists are familiar with the conversion story of the brilliant geneticist Francis Collins; if not, here’s a recap:

Nobody gets argued all the way into becoming a believer on the sheer basis of logic and reason. That requires a leap of faith. And that leap of faith seemed very scary to me. After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

[emphasis added]

Okay, got that? Collins tells us that (a) he was not “argued all the way” into becoming a believer on the basis of evidence, but rather that (b) his personal experiences changed his mind.

Now — as I’ve said elsewhere on this site — I can’t argue with that. Personally, I don’t think I would have had the same reaction to what strikes me as a relatively ordinary experience, but I can’t second-guess Dr. Collins’ personal motivations and conclusions. If he wants to do good science with one part of his brain and accept Jesus with another, so be it; that’s a concession that atheism is a rational response to the world.

But Dr. Collins doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t leave faith as a personal experience, to be divined from a tripartite waterfall or the equivalent; no, he’s got a new apologetic website in which he attempts to “argue all the way” to Jesus. Worse, on that site, Dr. Collins deliberately attempts to use his legitimate and unimpeachable scientific credentials in one field (genetics) to buttress standard schlock creationist arguments in an entirely different field in which he has no expertise whatsoever (astrophysics). This is standard creationist stock in trade, but it’s disheartening to see Collins using the same sleazy tactics.

Think I’m overstating the case? Here, let Collins speak for himself:

There is a law of physics called the Second Law of Thermodynamics that states an isolated system’s entropy can never decrease, it can only increase or stay the same. In other words, all changes in isolated systems lead to states of higher disorder. Therefore, the same must be true of our entire universe. However, it is also known that the formation of stars and galaxies, essential for the development of life on Earth, requires a high degree of order. This implies that the universe was once much more ordered than it is now, and therefore it began with a very low entropy.

No serious astrophysicist would write something that stupid. First, entropy is not really about ‘order’ in the cosmological sense; second, stellar formation is really well-understood (and not threatened at all by the increasing entropy of the universe), and third, the Big Bang model postulates the lowest possible initial entropy of the universe in any event.

In his apologetics, Collins protests that he is neither an ID creationist or a Biblical creationist. Why, then, is Collins peddling a classic ID creationist argument; one that has been debunked for over a decade (including Penrose’s garbage probability calculations)? And notice that when it comes to his own field, genetics, Collins ably refutes the creationists. But he rips a page from their playbook when he pretends to be an astrophysicist and regurgitates stuff you’d find at Answers in Genesis.

I don’t begrude Dr. Collins his personal beliefs; if he wants to be a Christian, that’s his business. But I do wish he’d honor his own reasons and leave it up to the personal experiences of others to affirm or reject, and I really wish he hadn’t crawled into bed with the tactics of the sleaziest creationists in peddling thorough-going dishonest, misleading nonsense.

HT: Pharyngula, of course.

April 28, 2009

A Modest Victory

Posted in Atheism, Creationism, Law tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:02 pm by Andrew

In the ongoing saga over the ICR’s ridiculous, ill-founded, written-in-crayon lawsuit against the THECB, we’ve won a tiny little victory, at least.

The ICR’s moronic press release has been taken down from the front page of their website and deleted from their news archive.

You can still access the article from the direct url — for now. But there doesn’t seem to be any other way to find it. It looks like the ICR follows the Uncommon Descent “down the memory hole” philosophy of dealing with embarrassing facts.

(Note that the lawsuit press release has a permalink number of 4598, which should place it in between the story about how retinal coordination is a “Picture Perfect Presentation of Design” and “Chimp Study Reveals Humans Are Uniquely Wired.” But I’m sure that the ICR folks just had to get up that timely refutation of Neil Shubin’s 2008 book. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Your Inner Fish, you should click on that link and order it.)

I’m sure that this site sending ICR nearly 6,000 hits since last Friday had nothing to do with this decision…. 🙂

So pat yourselves on the backs, guys. And go help PZ win an iPod Touch from creationist Eric “Baby Dr. Dino” Hovind.

Why the Argument from Morality (AfM) Fails

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Atheism and Morality tagged , , , , , at 11:59 am by Andrew

One of the most popular contemporary apologetics is the Argument from Morality (AfM); William Lane Craig uses it in every debate round, for example. Despite its near-ubiquity, I maintain that the AfM is, on balance, an argument against the command-morality of theism. Let’s dive in:
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A Peek Into the Life of the Evangelical Christian College Student

Posted in Atheism, Atheism and Morality tagged , , , , , , at 10:23 am by Andrew

Here’s a sneak peek at the rules and regulations at Pensacola Christian College. Students and staff at PCC are prohibited from:

* the use of alcohol in cooking
* watching PG-rated movies
* listening to “popular contemporary Christian music artists” such as “Steve Green, Amy Grant, or Steven Curtis Chapman.” (Don’t even ask about Stryper!)
* possessing a cell phone
* utilizing any wireless computer connection (including wireless print servers?)

And so on. The strangest part is the bit where women are not allowed to drive east, and men are not allowed to drive west. I would make some Sun-god crack here, but seriously: I can’t figure this out.

Although there’s a certain amount of ridicule in this post, let me be clear: if you want to live your life this way, have at it. I do think this highlights the pernicious influence of the belief that morality requires a God to lay down the rules. Once you no longer trust human reason, you wind up with a set of guidelines prohibiting adults from carrying cell phones, listening to Amy Grant, and driving off into the sunset. That’s part of why I think the argument from morality is one of the worst apologetic arguments for the existence of God (even as it remains stunningly popular).

HT: Slacktivist, and if you haven’t been reading liberal evangelical Fred Clark’s hilarious and well-informed dissection of the Left Behind series, you owe it to yourself to head over there right away.

Loftus on “The Strange And Superstitious World of the Bible”

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 9:26 am by Andrew

I thoroughly recommend John Loftus’s Why I Became An Atheist. In my mind it fills the gap nicely between pop-atheist works (like Dawkins) and specialized scholarship (such as Michael Martin). Of course, any well-read atheist or theist should have all three authors on their bookshelves, anyway.

John has rightly trumpeted his “Outsider Test for Faith” as a new and unique contribution to atheist counterapologetics (and I agree). But I wanted to focus in on a less-celebrated but still insightful passage. This is from page 152 of the paperback edition:
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April 27, 2009

The Delight of the Saints in the Suffering of the Damned (or: This Is Why I Like Victor Reppert)

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , at 12:37 pm by Andrew

I’m not enamored of Victor Reppert’s favorite apologetic argument, the so-called Argument from Reason, but I do appreciate his honesty and his willingness to tackle the strange and the unpalatable within his own belief system.

Today, it’s the long-standing Christian tradition (expressed here by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica and here by Puritan — and all-around jerk — Jonathan Edwards) that those in Heaven will have their eternal enjoyment magnified through the knowledge that the damned are suffering eternal torment in hell. Here’s how Aquinas puts it:

Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.

And here’s Edwards:

When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state, so exceedingly different from it! When they shall see how miserable others of their fellow creatures are, who were naturally in the same circumstances with themselves; when they shall see the smoke of their torment, and the raging of the flames of their burning, and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the mean time are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity; how will they rejoice!

I know that some Christians try to mitigate the implications of this line of analysis by becoming annihiliationists (which Theopedia describes as heretical), but other than that, I don’t know how Christians can answer the common-sense objection that for many people, it simply wouldn’t be heaven to know that others are suffering for an eternity in Hell.

“Evangelical” Atheism (or: Hey, Steve, You’re Not Helping!)

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences, Science, The Universe, Worldview tagged , , , , , , , , at 11:55 am by Andrew

Okay, this one is a real head-scratcher. A self-help guru (“Steve Pavlina,” not that I’ve ever heard of him) has posted his personal guide, “How to Graduate From Christianity.”

Ugh. Hey, Steve: you’re not helping! After the jump, I tackle Steve’s misguided notions of “graduating” from Christianity and defend my own vision of “evangelical” atheism.
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Questions I Can’t Answer (About the ICR)

Posted in Atheism, Creationism, Law tagged , , , , , , , at 10:07 am by Andrew

In the discussion of the Institute for Creation Research’s (“ICR”) lawsuit against the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board (“THECB”), as well as the ICR’s press release, commenter Quinn asks a question that I (mostly) can’t answer:

Why are these guys in Federal Court? Wouldn’t they be much better off using Texas’s mini-RFRA (http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/76R/billtext/html/SB00138F.htm)?

Great question.

My first impulse (before reading the statute) was to suggest that the Texas RFRA might not provide the ICR with the relief that it wants. But no, a quick look at the statute itself shows that’s not the case:

* Sec. 110.002 provides that the statute applies “to any ordinance, rule, order, decision, practice, or other exercise of governmental authority.” The THECB’s determination not to award a Certificate of Authority to the THECB clearly falls within this section.

* Moreover, sec. 110.005 entitles a plaintiff under the TRFRA to seek, inter alia both injunctive and declaratory relief, which is all the ICR is seeking in its 1983 action.

* As an added bonus, the TRFRA expands upon Supreme Court jurisprudence regarding the free exercise clause, effectively distinguishing the Employment Division v. Smith standard I discussed in my last post on the subject. Specifically, section 110.003(b) places the burden on the government to demonstrate that the action challenged:

(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

[emphasis added]

That’s a huge difference from the Smith standard that applies in 1983 cases, in which all the government need do is show that a law is facially neutral and designed to further a legitimate (not “compelling”) governmental interest.

In sum: Quinn has found a much stronger indictment of the ICR’s incompetence than I raised in my first two posts on the subject. On face, it appears that the TRFRA is a much better vehicle for advancing the ICR’s claims than 42 U.S.C. 1983.

I should add that the TRFRA does not solve many of the initial weaknesses I highlighted in the ICR’s lawsuit; it doesn’t appear to waive the requirement for administrative exhaustion, so that’s still a problem. And it doesn’t solve the massive, open-ended scope of the “injunction” the ICR seeks. But certainly the ICR would have been no worse off (and potentially, much better off) adding a TRFRA claim to their initial complaint.

Finally, I should clarify that ICR could bring a state law claim under the Texas statute in federal court alongside their sec. 1983 claim; that’s called “pendent” jurisdiction, and generally, so long as the claims arise out of the same set of facts, a federal judge will also keep state law claims in federal court so as to avoid having two lawsuits proceeding at the same time in two different jurisdictions. So the dichotomy isn’t quite what Quinn suggests; the ICR could stay in federal court and still bring a complaint alleging both federal and state law claims.

Of course, this only begs yet another question (that I can’t answer) — why does the ICR want to be in federal court in the first place? In general, federal courts are more defense-friendly, they’re more willing to dismiss cases, the judges are smarter, and they’re less likely to entertain nonsense suits. Plus, I’m assuming that Mr. Johnson, J.D.’s family law practice has probably brought him into more contact with the state bar and the judges who sit on the various state District Courts than it has with the federal judges. So I’m left scratching my head as to why the ICR would want to be in federal court at all.

Great question, Quinn. Sorry I can’t answer it!

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