It’s always funny to me that everyone seems to come up with a different number of questions. Not everyone goes for a nice round number. Matt Slick had 31 questions, had questions, Robert Nielsen had 10 questions and now we’re doing 12. I’m not sure why but that strikes me as funny. This time, we return to questions asked by a theist directly to atheists. It comes from a blog called Well Spent Journey and while the post is a year and a half old, some of the questions are different enough from what we’ve seen that it seemed worthwhile to answer them. I have no idea if the original author will see this or not, but if so, I welcome him to respond to my answers.
Now as the original author notes in his post, some of these questions are multi-part queries and therefore might take a little more time and effort, which is fine, it’s not like I hate to write, just letting people know that we might be going for some length here.
Therefore, let’s get to it. Here are my answers to 12 theist questions.
1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause? If so, what was this cause?
You’d have to define what you mean by a cause. If you’re trying to get to the Kalam Cosmological Argument then no, there’s nothing that suggests our universe requires that and Kalam is fatally flawed anyhow. Certainly, we know that the universe had a beginning, that being the Big Bang. We do not know what, if anything, kicked off the Big Bang so the answer to your second question is “we don’t know”. That keeps us looking for a proper answer, unlike theists who typically simply invent an explanation out of whole cloth because it makes them feel good.
2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?
The problem is that we don’t really know enough about quantum mechanics to say. It’s entirely possible that, at some fundamental level, our views of deterministic natural laws don’t function well, just as Newtonian physics falls apart at certain extremes and Einstein’s general theory of relativity falls apart at others. In the regular world, they work well enough for us to predict what’s going on, but at the level of quarks, who knows? That’s something that we have to see as time goes on and we learn more. That’s how science operates, we continue to learn and we continue to revise our ideas as more information becomes available. That’s a strength of science, not a weakness.
3. How do you account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton, etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?
We don’t and why should we? It’s not something that has to be accounted for, it’s just something that is. The assumption here, I’m sure, is that there is a purpose that all of the things listed were somehow intended, therefore the conditions must have also been designed to bring about the intended result. That’s not the case. We are finely tuned for the universe, the universe is not finely tuned for us. We are the result of evolution in the conditions that happen to exist in our universe. If the universe had been different, so would we, if we even came about at all. If the natural laws in the universe didn’t permit the evolution of life, there would be no one here to complain about it. This question comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the process.
4. Why is the human mind naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the laws of nature?
We’re not naturally fluent in mathematics, ask any high school student trying to learn calculus. Mathematics is a language and it’s one that we, as humans, made up. It is a bunch of symbols and concepts that we attribute meaning to, nothing more. The universe operates under certain predictable principles which we can model using this mathematical language. It’s not nearly as magical as you make it out to be.
5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism? If so, why are rational human scientists and engineers so woefully incapable of imitating the precision and complexity of cellular machinery that (presumably) arose via strictly irrational processes?
Yes I do and whether or not science is capable of replicating the process or not had nothing whatsoever to do with nature’s ability to do it. After all, there was a time not that long ago when man had no capability to build computers and other “thinking machines”. Was the concept magical or was it simply beyond our technical ability at the time? Evolution is a rational process, it acts according to known and very well understood physical laws. The word you are looking for here is not “rational” but “directed.” Evolution is not a directed process, it has no goals, it works according to known rules and produces predictable results. If it was entirely irrational, then likely it wouldn’t work at all.
6. Do you believe free will to be illusory? If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?
It really comes down to how you define free will. As I’ve pointed out before, does the term have any meaning at all in a universe where an omniscient God exists? How can you ever make a decision on your own when this God knows, with perfect, inerrant perception, everything that you will do, in perfect detail, for your entire life, long before you were ever born? Is that free will illusory? I can’t see how it would be anything else. However, in the natural world, while biology probably plays a large part in the decisions that we make, there’s no reason to think that we are not able to make choices between a variety of available options and call this free will. I can go to the ice cream parlor and decide if I want chocolate, vanilla or strawberry and even if I know that I hate one of those flavors, I still have the ability to choose it. Heck, even if I know that I am allergic to it and it will kill me, I can still order it. That would seem to indicate that I can pick freely, even if there is a biological reason that I should not. I think a lot of people really misunderstand the whole concept of free will. No one can ever just make any decision they want and expect it to be valid. You can’t stand at the top of a tall building and decide you can fly, then flap your arms and take off. It’s not a rational position to take and not being able to do it is not a lack of free will. You can only choose between available options and unpowered flight is not an option. Beyond that, I don’t see where ethics has anything to do with it. We punish people for taking actions that are in violation to the dictates of society. Whether or not those dictates are ethical really has no meaning, if you live in a society where the laws are immoral (by your standards), the expectation that you will follow the laws doesn’t change and you have a choice to make, either follow the laws, no matter how immoral or unethical you think they are, go to jail for violating the laws, or leave the society for one more to your liking. There is no option to simply ignore the laws and avoid punishment for doing so.
7. Does objective morality exist? If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”? If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?
No, objective morality does not exist. I don’t know that I would call it a “fad” but it certainly is something that humans come up with and enforce. It’s quite simple to see this if we look at how morals change, both across the world and over time. The morality that the United States had in 1776 is nothing like it is today. The morality in Maine is not the same as the morality in Arizona. Sure, some things may be similar but that’s mostly because we’ve codified a lot of moral precepts into law and human needs are largely identical across the board, but the laws of one state are not exactly the same as the laws of another. I’ve been quite vocal about the irrationality of objective morality in the past, you only have to search for “objective morality” and you’ll get a ton of posts on the subject, therefore I’m not going to rehash it here.
8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?
Enlightened self-interest suggests that humans, in general, are more important to other humans than non-human animals are. Does that mean they are objectively so? Of course not, there is no such thing as objective value. I would suspect that dolphins would think that other dolphins are more important than humans, apes would think other apes are more important than humans, assuming they have the wherewithal to make such decisions. So it’s not that odd that we, being human, would be much more interested in the safety and security of other humans than we would of non-humans. That all comes from our particular perspective though and our in-born genetic predisposition to value our own kind more than any other kinds. That doesn’t mean that, in trying to save an ape or a dog or a fruit fly, we are valuing them more than a human, just that we have the ability, given that other humans are not in danger, to shift our focus to other animals. I think that people who are willing to value non-human animals over humans have some screwed up wiring in their heads.
9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?
While I can’t speak for anyone else, in my own case I would argue not because I have taken careful steps not to permit such biases to intrude. I apply rationality and intelligence to everything and continually test my own position in light of new evidence to make sure it continues to be true and if I find that it does not, I change my belief, based on what the evidence actually tells me. Unfortunately, for most theists, they are not interested in the evidence, they are interested in their own emotional comfort. I follow the evidence wherever it leads, I do not pick a conclusion based on what makes me feel good and drag the evidence kicking and screaming behind me. I cannot say that atheism is immune to such things, in fact, I routinely point out where some atheists are very much affected by wishful thinking and other cognitive dissonance, but that doesn’t mean it applies to me. Most people in that situation simply do not recognize it.
10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity? If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?
I think that in the modern world, it has had a net negative effect. That’s not necessarily true in the past, but evolution, even social evolution, takes place over long, long periods of time. The unfortunate reality is that most people are indoctrinated into religion today at a time when they are intellectually unable to reject it and taught that maintaining belief is necessary to their health, safety and eternal salvation. It’s not exactly a fair or rational proposition, is it? What the theist here is proposing is really argumentum ad populum, the idea that because an idea is popular, that makes it more likely to be true. That’s not the case and in fact, we can point to many situations in history where it was completely false. At one point in time, the belief in a flat earth was very prevalent. It was also very wrong. Back in the days when the early Hebrews wrote the Tanakh, they believed that the earth was flat and the sky was a dome upon which stars were hung. They were wrong. Popularity is a very poor means for determining fact. Today, religion is more of a social tool, most theists really don’t take their beliefs seriously, it’s a means for maintaining a community feeling. These are the “social Christians” that I’ve talked about many times in the past. There are some people who take their beliefs seriously to a certain degree but most of them, including the writer I’m responding to, I’d wager, pick and choose which parts of their Holy books that they want to follow and come up with ad hoc rationalizations for why they reject the rest.
11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?
It would honestly depend on the situation and the stranger. If I faced certain death for a stranger, I’d be less likely to do so than if I was only somewhat likely to be somewhat injured. If it was a family member, I would be more likely to risk injury or death than for someone I’d never seen before. I’d say that is entirely rational to make such decisions based on the importance of the individual and the potential of harm to yourself. That’s probably not the answer this theist wanted but that’s the one I’m providing.
12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true? What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?
I probably wouldn’t. It’s one thing if you can show, through objective evidence, that the Christian God and/or Jesus actually exists. It’s another to make them worthy of worship and honestly, I don’t think that they are. All you have to do is read the Bible and find how morally monstrous God is, so no, even if they are real, even if I do risk eternal damnation by not worshiping them, it’s almost certain that I wouldn’t do so. In fact, the very fact that I would be risking damnation is one huge reason not to bow down. Now there’s an assumption here that the atheist, myself in this case, would have to make any adjustments to live a so-called “faithful, public Christian life”. Most atheists started out as theists and rejected it when it failed to match up to demonstrable reality. I see no reason why, if I suddenly were convinced of the veracity of Christianity again, that I’d have to make any real changes because I don’t live all that differently today than I did as a Christian. Certainly, I haven’t become a baby-eating monster, in fact, I think I’m more moral and ethical today than I ever was as a Christian because I’ve actually bothered to think about my positions and compare them to demonstrable reality, something I never did as a Christian, I just did what religious authority figures told me God wanted me to do. That’s not moral, that’s not ethical, that’s a herd mentality and it results in a lot of problems among modern-day Christians. I’d probably still accept that everyone ought to be equal, regardless of what the Bible says, because I have yet to see a single faithful Christian follow every single moral dictate listed in the Bible. You get to pick and choose? So do I.
And there you have it, another set of questions down. Next time, I’ll be looking at what happens when the theist questioner is a rude asshole. Hope to see you then.