First off, here are the “Five Questions to Ponder” as originally posted by my Christian friend:
2. There are many properties or constants within our universe which must be within a very specific range for life to exist. With this in mind, how do you explain how this came about by chance (undirected)?
3. In Darwin’s time the human cell was thought to be relatively simple. On that fact Darwin found it plausible for “random chance” to create such a simple building block of life. However, recent scientific discoveries have shown that the human cell is one of the most organized, complex systems in our universe. What explains the immense amount of organization and information contained in the human cell and why are random/undirected processes a better explanation than design?
4. If there is no god then what is your basis for morality? Anything you suggest would be a matter of your own opinion because you have no objective 3rd party. What gives your opinion any more truth than the extreme Muslim who wants to engage in jihad?
5. Every one of us will one day die and many will never see it coming. If there is no god, what is the meaning of existence if all we are will fade away without our consent?
Tristan D. Vick’s Rebellious and Razzle Dazzle Rebuttal:
I should start by mentioning that these standard fair questions have be adequately addressed by numerous scientists, philosophers, and thinkers before me, as such I cannot add that much to already resolutely elucidated material, but I will take a stab at answering your concerns as they happen to apply to me personally, as I cannot speak for other secular minded freethinkers.
1. I don’t believe we can trust our own thoughts. In fact, the research of Elizabeth Loftus, of the University of California Irvine, has shown that memories can be implanted, manipulated, and changed via external stimulation. Also, Loftus has shown via numerous cognitive studies that many of our own memories are false and tied directly to our cognitive faculties. (See: http://fora.tv/2009/07/14/Elizabeth_Loftus_Whats_the_Matter_with_Memory)
a) As for the naturalistic part of the question, the question might be better understood if you asked, what’s not naturalistic in this universe? Starting from what we know and trying to discover what we don’t know via a process of deduction is more logical than starting from what we don’t (or can’t know) and assuming it must be so because our limited knowledge doesn’t account for it (yet). Personally, I see no evidence for paranormal or supernatural experiences and events which can’t be explained via naturalistic means using tools such as the scientific method. The historian and outspoken proponent of atheism Richard Carrier takes several chapters to explain just why this question fails and why it is a non-sequitur in his book Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.
b) Ergo: If all things can be explained by naturalistic means, then what purpose for a deity? And if God does exist, this begs the question, why would God make it so he appears not to exist?
c) It is rumored that in one of his radio interviews, when pressed on the question of materialism being evil, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis emphatically rejected the idea that strict materialism was somehow evil (after all the Church has thrived off of material necessities, such as tithing, war mongering, and pomp and circumstance, and other material matters in order to promote and sustain the Christian faith) and Lewis stated nothing is wrong with materialism itself, after all, “God likes matter, God created matter.” So if you’re implying that naturalism, or materialism, is an empty pursuit I would find fault with that assumption. After all, like Lewis so strategically hinted, if you’re not living in a material word (designed by a deity according to theists) then what kind of world are you living in? In that sense, there is nothing wrong with materialism or naturalism regardless of whether or not God exists.
d) Last but not least, what’s wrong with nothing existing outside of the physical world? I personally find your thinking limited in scope on this aspect. Anyone who professes that the supernatural is a given, and that’s it’s a more natural state than the one we’re perceptibly in, is likely blowing hot smoke up our asses and should not be trusted. This is why those who start with the argument for God from the standpoint of “knowing” he exists often find nonbelievers and rationalists just rolling their eyes.
If the supernatural were as prevalent as believers claim it to be, then we’d have more evidence for it. Moses professed a natural fear in chatty internally combustible shrubbery, and as interesting as a talking bush would be, anyone with common sense would throw a pail of water over the burning thicket and put it out (as anyone would for any such fire hazard). If it was truly God speaking to him through a mystical conversational shrub, then I admit that’s pretty neat. This would be sturdy evidence, but we know it to be a myth and nothing more, so ancient stories without support cannot be taken at face value. As for the argument from beauty, that our consciousness is tuned into a higher transcendental state, and in moments of tranquility, or when admiring art, or enjoying music, and letting our emotional feelings run with the beauty of such experiences, I’m entirely skeptical of those who state this is something other than my brain functioning as it should. Whatever we experience in the desert of the real plays on our senses, and there is no evidence to even posit that it is anything other than pure physiology at work.
2. I take it your question is borrowed from the argument for fine-tuning. Based on our best current knowledge, nature is not deterministic, nor does it seem to contain design in the sense you are speaking of. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics implies that the notion of a particle cannot be predicted with absolute certainty, that much that happens in the universe is random.
a) Nobody has said such events must be dictated by chance, however, it appears they seem to follow a systematic physics which fell into place after the big bang and have certain predictable properties. But one shouldn’t mistake this for design–this is function. Even oysters make pearls, after all. Most of our observations and mathematical equations which describe what it is we are actually seeing when we gaze into the universe points to the fact that it is by chance we get the form and function of things in the known universe, e.g. Quantum Mechanics shows this (see: Quantum Gods by Victor J. Stenger), the Anthropic Principle shows this (see: The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design by Leonard Susskind—the leading physicist supporter of the Anthropic Principle), the Ekpyrotic theory shows this (see: Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang by Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok—show how the Big Bang is not a one off singularity, never mind Stephen Hawking already proved this in his book A Brief History of Time), Quantum tunneling shows this (see: James B. Hartle and Stephen Hawking’s article “Wave Function of the Universe,” in the Physical Review D28, 1983), everything in physics and cosmology shows that at its most basic and fundamental properties the universe is pure chaos and unpredictability. It’s all flux. But for this reason, one cannot find purposeful design as that which Theists propose a Handicrafter of some kind would have instilled in the universe should it have been intelligently designed. Why is this important? In actuality, both fine-tuning and intelligent design arguments have be debunked by the aforementioned cosmology and physics(I hope you read all of these books as I simply can’t explain what they can as I am no expert in the field of cutting edge physics and cosmology).
Even the Christian proposal that God designed the universe, indeed “finely tuned” it to be the perfect mechanism for producing life, fails to predict the universe we see. A universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain it. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that is not what we see. Instead, almost the entire universe is lethal to life–in fact, if we put all the lethal vacuum of outer space swamped with deadly radiation into an area the size of a house, you would never find the comparably microscopic speck of area that sustains life. Would you conclude that the house was built to serve and benefit that subatomic speck? Hardly. Yet that is the house we live in. The Christian theory completely fails to predict this—while atheism predicts exactly this.
I.D. is feasibly plausible if someone would create a testable theory instead of just lamenting how life couldn’t exist if it weren’t for an intelligent designer of some kind. However, as it is it is purely conjecture. When it comes to the cosmos, I must agree with Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s answer when Napoleon inquired why celestial mechanics had no mention of God, Laplace simply replied, “Your Highness, I have no need of this hypothesis.” Besides, why would an Intelligent Designer make it, again, so we cannot detect any semblance of design because of the uncongenial nature of a chaotic universe which balances life on a knife’s edge? That would effective mask any supposed intelligent design, and again, if God exists, why would he make it appear like he didn’t exist?
c) The Physicist Victor J. Stenger, and author of God the Failed Hypothesis, was also a part of a study which showed how varying the properties and values of this constant would effectively change the universe so humans could not survive, but has shown how life could still arise, and with the probability of intelligent life arising, although it would not resemble us (see the aforementioned book, especially Chapter 5: The Uncongenial Universe in which Stenger devotes a large portion of it to the fine-tuning argument). So, we find the fine tuning argument is based off false assumptions, as Stenger clarifies:
The parameters of nature are not fine-tuned at all. Either they have the values they do because of being arbitrary to begin with, being fixed by the laws of physics, or else they still allow for some kind of life when other parameters are varied. A common mistake by the unqualified people making these claims of fine-tuning is to fix all the parameters but one and then vary just that one. Any properly trained scientist knows that all parameters must be varied when studying what happens when the parameters of a system change. (The New Atheism, p. 240)
3. One answer to your question is fractal geometry (although there may be better suited ones). Benoît B. Mandelbrot, of Yale University, has shown that through chaos theory we can derive a theorem, now called the Mandelbrot set, that when millions upon millions of permutations are applied to nature we get the formation of pattern. The snowflake is a perfect example of this process. Through random temperature fluctuations, variations in wind current, thermal and atmospheric pressure, elevation, and so on and so forth, out of these arbitrary parameters, if the conditions meet the right prerequisites (a chance by chance occurrence) then random water molecules will decrease in kinetic energy to a low energy state and freeze into position, thus forming the complexity of a crystalline snowflake. Now if you were to look at a snowflake under the microscope you would observe perfect symmetry, repeating patterns, the very appearance of intricate design none-the-less! But it takes random chaos and so many unpredictable variables to make just one, even though it happens quite naturally, and as Mandelbrot showed this is true with the human vascular systems, tree branching, cloud shapes, shoreline patterns, and even star cluster formations!
Therefore, the prediction would be, if DNA were to be as complex as you say it is, the only real way it could have come about through evolution via natural selection and retain the appearance of design is if it were a fractal formation. Low and behold, it was just discovered last week that it is! (See: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091008142957.htm)
This parallels the more than annoying argument ignorant believers make when they claim that evolution is false. What natural selection does when it creates the apparent design we see in living organisms is by acting upon bioorganic life and forcing cells to adapt to external stimuli, such as climate changes and environment, a cell is force to change in order to allow the selfish gene type of behavior to replicate it’s information (see Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor’s Tale), and continues spreading the information most commonly by sexual reproduction.
(For Jerry Coyne’s refutation of Michael Behe’s creationist conjecture see his article “The Great Mutator” which also does a good job of summarizing how evolution works: http://www.powells.com/review/2007_06_14.html)
So what explains the immense amount of organization and information contained in the human cell and why are random/undirected processes a better explanation than design?—the answer is fractal geometry combined with the powers of natural selection. In other words, how the structure of D.N.A can, with the help of natural selection, evolve over time to fold itself into a fractal form, thus increasing it’s capacity to contain vast amounts of genetic data imprinted on genes, and because natural selection can fold D.N.A. in such a way should not go overlooked by those who claim that D.N.A. is too complex to have happened naturally. So you see, the design we apparently have, as useful and functional as it is, comes about by haphazard happenstance, and this is evidence contrary to what Creationist claim about God being an “Intelligent Designer.” Thus, it appears the argument for Intelligent Design theory has been disproved by recent scientific advancements and has been shelved with the rest of the God of the gap arguments.
4. What is your basis that God is a prerequisite for moral conduct and behavior? I see nothing in the natural world that suggests this. In fact, most Christians exhibit just as bad of behavior, if not worse, than any non-believer by comparison. If you’re implying that religion reforms, then I ask that you take a look at the statistics which show that 42% of our penal system is filled with Christians while only 2% make up non-believers. Atheists also have the lowest divorce rate in the U.S. (Barna, 1999) while Protestant Christians are among the highest.
Although this alone doesn’t invalidate a source of moral behavior, merely that religion by its nature cannot be that source. (By the way, Jihad means a personal act of sacrifice, in the devotional sense, and it doesn’t necessarily equate to violent acts. When you use the term jihad you should be specific with what you are referring to because a lot of Muslims would take offends by the insinuation that because they practice their faith they are all implicitly terrorists, when that’s not the case.) Again, I can only point you in the direction of the literature, since this has mostly been covered by many prominent philosophers. Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” and other writings as well as Robert Green Ingersoll’s speeches, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, and David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, A Treatise of Human Nature, and Of Miracles (among many others) lay down much of the groundwork for modern humanist/atheist arguments for humanist morality in great detail.
I actually don’t think the moral groundwork rests entirely on the shoulders of these philosophers alone, although all great thinkers, there is a wealth of philosophy on the subject worth considering. What these men did, apart from others, was show that any basis of morality apart from God disproves the Theist claim that God must be the only source for that morality. They weren’t the first thinkers to tackle such concepts either, but they were the first Atheistic thinkers to do so. Mainly because religion did not allow for such freedom of individual thought and opinion till quite recently. I myself prefer the Buddhist concept of the Eight Fold Path and the Four Noble Truths, along with other Zen philosophies, to gain my spiritual sentimentality. I find it much more practical than, say for example, the Ten Commandments, which are more or less diktats to obey God than actual moral precepts to improve life. I think most people who’ve studied both in detail would agree.
a) In my estimation, scholarly judgments can never properly be a matter of “the will to believe.” Rather, the historian’s maxim must always be Kant’s: “Dare to Know.”
Knowing, they say, is half the battle. I would also recommend Sense & Goodness Without God by Richard Carrier, Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman, The Atheist’s Way: Living Well Without God by Eric Maisel, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became one of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker, Living Without God by Ronald Aronson, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God by Guy P. Harrison, Leaving Islam:Apostates Speaks Out by Ibn Warraq, and last but not least Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity by John W. Loftus. These books lay out with precision why belief in God has no direct link to moral behavior, ethics, good conduct, or just plain old being nice. Notice that many of the authors are indeed ex-ministers, pastors, and preachers. So although you may not find my arguments convincing, you cannot be as naïve to assume that these men haven’t thought long and hard about it. Read them.
b) As for morality, I think it is like the Japanese say, we all have seizensetsu. That is to say, mankind has an innate goodness built into his being. Eastern philosophy matches this internalized goodness with a compulsory weakness to do evil, it is represented by balance. The yin and yang are reflections of polar opposites which must exist if equilibrium is to exist. The Tao is the way in which we find balance in all things. Even though this is all a philosophical theory, it reflects nature rather well. The Christian beliefs have a sort of world weariness where nature seems to be distrusted, for mostly irrational reasons.
b) The Christian hypothesis that God is good and sin is driving us away from his goodness, on the other hand, is just wild conjecture. First you have to prove God in order to prove that sin exists in any capacity in relation to that God—which would technically be the absence of God’s infinite goodness. And since you can’t do that I have no reason to believe in sin as a Christian professes it to be. Let alone, if sin were a status of being absent of God’s grace for reasons beyond our control, then a fallen status means we have no built in innate goodness that could, at any rate, be anything other than an extension of God to begin with. Indeed, this is what a Christians implicitly says when they praise the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost, but again, prove this exists and I’ll consider what you have to say.
c) Nor does Christ’s redeeming atonement have anything to do with goodness. Christ’s death does not balance the nature of sin but seeks to eradicate it through his holy sanctification and divine power, since the Son of God cannot (by your definition) be evil there is no concept of seizensetsu. According to Christians Christ’s cleansing act of forgiveness washed away all of our sins, but then we are free to sin again? This is what is called a catch-22. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. And if our Holy Spirit is the essence of God’s goodness, and it is up to our rational choice to choose goodness over evil, then this implies that those who choose good are good all along, and those who choose evil are evil all along, whether or not they believe or have accepted the Holy Spirit or not. This is a non-sequitur since it states that we can only be good with the Holy Spirit and redemption through Christ, but in order to choose the right path to salvation we must be good prior to having accepted the Holy Spirit. Wait, what? And if God is guiding us along anyway, then that’s Predestination, and you’ve opened a whole new can of worms.
d) The concept of sin isn’t so tricky as it is nonsensical. If sin simply equated to the statement that bad exists in the world, then that is true enough. But if it equates to a moral status set apart from God, then it follows, you having posited the positive statement of God’s existence and goodness must support that statement with trustworthy evidence. A negative statement would be that God does not likely exist and if he did he is certainly not good, and for that we have Christopher Hitchens (I suggest you watch Christopher Hitchens’ full speech at:
Your questions assumes too much, and is completely biased since (as with most Christian assumptions) is assumes Christianity is automatically right and is uncritical of the fact that it has no support for such an egregious claim. I suggest you study the material which addresses this question and come back to it at a later time after you have had the chance to formulate a more sophisticated opinion which doesn’t negate itself by its own implications.
In Dostoevsky’s Bros. Karamazov the Grand Inquisitor mocks believers stating, “Beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity.” That’s what the fear of death in religion amounts to, letting yourself get carried up in religion’s propaganda so that the fear of death will make you say yes to darn near anything, and the promise of eternal life and heavenly award should you choose their side is just added incentive to join the cause! Hey, why not?! If it’s cake or death, as Eddy Izzard has so splendidly put it, then only an irrational imbecile would choose death over cake. The fear of death is crippling, it’s a handicap which hinders your capacity to enjoy your life without the burden of such fear, and religion seeks to maintain such fears through use of propaganda. And this is not at all healthy, in fact, it’s sickeningly grotesque.
a) I personally feel it is as Dan Barker said, “It shouldn’t matter what any of us wants to believe. The fact that life is ultimately meaningless does not mean it is not immediately meaningful.” I feel this is where Christians, like yourself, get hung up. You don’t want to admit that without God life could have any meaning (at all). But those who don’t believe in God find lots of immediate meaning, lots of things to be grateful for, such as my baby daughter Solara, my wife Sayaka, my family and friends, my good luck to have a decent job, to have socialized health insurance, to be healthy, and to know that I can accomplish anything I set out to with is little dedication and hard work—and that is meaningful. It would remain meaningful even in a universe without God. So the insinuation that I could not find meaning in my life without believing in God is offensive.
Maybe you need the idea of God to comfort and sooth your fears, but I do not, so do not assume that without my having to believe in your propositions, as nice as they seem, I could not live a meaningful life or find meaning in it. In this case, I feel carpe diem applies to counter the negativity of such claims, which implicitly assume that if everything is naturalistic then everything is meaningless and nothingness is the ultimate goal to strive for–this is nihilism–not atheism, mind you. Things have meaning, precisely because they matter!
For example, the bittersweet realization of the shortness of one’s life, like the soft whisper of a true lover whispering “I love you” quickly fading away on the sweetness of breathe, or the flourishing of the Japanese cherry blossom, the blossoming pink petals quickly losing their vibrancy only to descend to the ground, a brief existence which lasts only a flicker and then is gone again, has a sanguine quality which echoes the sublime. The immediacy of life is a precious affair. I’d dare not tarnish its pristine beauty with primitive thoughts of haughty virgins in Paradise or rivers of flowing wine—all carnal and earthly desires. Hamlet described it as the Undiscovered Country that doth make cowards of us all, but deemed it something to be wished for. I could not agree more.
My comment about “carnal and earthly” desires, not to confuse the issue, is directed at the theist who believes in the Transcendent all powerful awe-inspiring might of an almighty God, who apparently is not beyond himself to forbid carnal lust and drunkenness in this lifetime, but lures believers with the promise of such sins in the afterlife. To me, that sort of desire reflects the desires of mortal men, all fallible, not a perfect supreme being.
Even so, my comment is aimed at the fact that there are physical and naturalistic things which are far more transcendental and awe-inspiring than wine and virgins. When compared to the awesomeness of solar flares, and the immense energy and power of nuclear fusion igniting so brilliant that to stare at our sun for more than a few seconds can damage the human retina, then that’s something to be truly in awe of. Stellar formation, red giants, brown dwarfs, flashing pulsars, neutron stars, Wolf-Rayet 104, supernovas, gravitational collapse and black hole formation, the glowing halo of an event horizon—that’s beyond awesome. So if one day I am passing a dry thicket and it flames on and begins to speak to me I shall not be as gullible as Moses was, because as interesting as that may be to the ancient, superstitious, and mystical minded person, until I can disprove it is simply an illusion, or else a prank, or even a mirage and my mind is playing tricks on me, then I would rather gaze through a telescope and the real beauty and elegance of the universe. Because the implication you are making has forgotten to consider that even if everything is strictly naturalistic, it’s still magnificently awesome, and the non-existence of any deity would not detract from the genuine awesomeness of nature.
So I find the God argument fails huge when it reveals its bad human touch. If I believed there was some unseen thing that doth draw me to it, like the load-stone, as the theologian Thomas Traherne once proclaimed, then I sure hope it would be something better than simple materialistic bribes like an excess of booze and boobs. For a man as happy with his wife as I am, virgins in paradise is a just a juvenile fantasy that only a desperately horny adolescent would fall for. Wine? I’m no drunk. These do not sound like universal calls for happiness by an all powerful God who could, if he were real, do better than that. So God is pure love? Well, I like the sound of that better, but can you prove it? I’m willing to accept that the belief in the belief in God being omnibenevolent is nice, but it’s philosophically unsound, and without a stronger foundation it’s not going to do any better than the weakest atheist philosopher’s pet idea–you have heard of the intergalactic Flying Spaghetti Monster have you not? It is said, that his Spaghetti sauce love rivals that of any god, Ramen! And that’s the sort of insufficient faith many people adhere to, but it won’t convince me.
b) The Reason Driven Life: What Am I here on Earth for? By Robert M. Price addresses your other concerns more fully. Also, I suggest The Meaning of Life: A Reader edited by E.D. Klemke and Steven M. Cahn for some good articles on the meaning of life. But, as I have said, there is more than a plentiful of works written on this subject matter. This particular philosophical inquiry, the meaning of life that is, is practically limitless.
Nobody needs the idea of sin and eternal punishment looming over their heads all the while letting their conscience be haunted and terrorized by archaic myths and bronzed aged phobias. No, I find that a Christian belief requires an extravagant excess of wishful thinking disproportionate to the facts. I admire the stories, and find them engrossing, but I know them to be fictitious stories which reflect our human fears and aspirations, and they encapsulate much of the human experience from a time when we first started recording and cataloging it. And it is in the power of stories where we come to grips with the myriad of stimuli and influences, and the thousand shocks we are heir to, perchance to dream of a better tomorrow. But more than this, to actually wake up, to stop dreaming, and make our dreams come true. To live free, to learn from the journey as we go along, try to live responsibly, enjoy the happiness I have found (which is enough for me), it is in all this that I find deep meaning and comfort.