Top 10 Questions (+1) for Atheists and Rebuttals


It’s no secret that Hinduism is the religion I do not believe in. But with that comes a different outlook to my atheism. It’s tempered by ideas about the gods gained from growing up Hindu. To me gods are less angry sky wizards and more players in a divine comedy. They have personalities, likes and dislikes. We know about Krishna being punished as a kid for nicking butter and while many of the Judeo-Christians may consider that lack of divinity to make their god less “divine” I think humanity is just as important.

Jesus died for your sins? So what? Vishnu lived to save humans a total of 9 times.

That’s the difference. I always considered Christianity to be a bit morbid. It was always about the death off Jesus and in Hinduism while death is a part of life, it isn’t the most important part.

But I believe in neither but you can take ideas from religion. Not all religious ideas are inherently bad. We can understand the value of bonding with family over Christmas, we just chose to not do so over prayer and instead over perhaps the cut-throat world of family politics or the even more cut-throat world of Monopoly.

We aren’t all that different. If we cut an atheist and believer in half we will have two dead guys who look pretty similar inside. We each have our idiots and bigots. But what changes is how we think about things. Or how we don’t think about things as the case may be. Without the overarching faith of religion where we take certain truths as undeniable we have to think outside the box.

This was a list given to me to see how I would answer.

1. Can you prove empirically that there is no creating agent for the universe? If the answer is yes, then you must show your work if it is to be considered anything more than just a claim

This is one of those “gotcha” questions.

The universe is like a box. It is a construct of space that we use to denote our known understanding of the world around us. At one point the Universe in our heads was very very small but still very large. The sky was but a tapestry and the stars were lights of spirits and gods. Pin-pricks of divinity that watched over us.

And then some bright spark went and spoiled it all by insisting it was probably just a gigantic ball of fire very very far away. Some say that mankind lost a little poetry in it’s soul that day, but I think that’s a foolish attitude. We can still say that “That the Stars Cry at his Passing” to show the intersection between grief and meteorology without getting technical about it.

But we know that the stars are gigantic spheres of nuclear fusion. And what’s more wonderous is that they are essential to life as we know it through  both the production of the higher elements forged in their nuclear furnaces and through photosynthesis.

With each discovery the box that we live in got bigger and bigger. Until we realised how laughably small our initial ideas on the box were. On the scale of the universe we are the anomalous. The weird and the bizarre. We are as wonderful as the hurricane on Jupiter and as marvellous as a Binary star system. Because we are the only known planet of life we have discovered.

Through enlarging the box we have learned more about the universe we live in. We know how stuff in the box with us works and we can utilise those principles to explain and make things. This is what we call Science and Technology.

However remember, we are still inside the box. We may enlarge the box but there is a limit to science at the moment which is the wall of the box. We may yet break through that wall.

The religious hide god behind this wall. Each wall represents another fortress of ignorance where their gods hide, safe in the knowledge that no one can disprove of them so they must accept the hypothetical possibility of existence.

Once the moon was a god, and we put a man on the bloody thing. Why should we think your wall is any different to the wall that the gods hid behind a mere 2000 years ago?

There is no way to disprove the existence of anything. I cannot categorically say that unicorns do not exist. What I can say is that there is no evidence for the existence of unicorns. There is no evidence for the existence of any gods.

What we have is the notion that there must be a prime mover. And since the universe is complicated he must be more complicated (And male because ladies don’t like making things that aren’t cakes or pie) than said universe. This prime mover is “god” and is given all sorts of super powers to fit into this role.

But all of that was human invention. We had an unanswered question. What caused the universe? To which we ourselves made up an answer and over time we have attributed this answer with more embellishments to make it stick. To understand this principle we must go back to our childhoods. Which superhero did you want to be? Oh very few kids want to be Batman, but Superman? Why? Because he is a physical representation of power we can understand. He is based on classical ideals. In fact all the DC comic heroes of the main Justice League tended to fit into identifiable “tropes” of classical heroes. Superman initially was faster than a bullet, stronger than a train and could merely jump skyscrapers. He was indestructible but WW2 created a new level of power. By the end, Supes could fly and was effectively upgraded to “worse than a nuclear weapon”. Because the scale of power that we understood changed. So did Superman to remain “Super” rather than merely “Very Excellent Man” or “Above Average Man”. His powers increased to the point his life was challenge free so DC had to invent weaknesses first through Magic, Non-Dimensional beings, Kryptonite and Equally Powerful Enemies. Then came the era of better writing where Superman’s Greatest Enemy was one he could punch to pieces in seconds but who literally played through the weaknesses and ideologies of Superman. There was another character at this time with more powers than Superman called the Martian Manhunter. And he was Superman + everything but the Kitchen Sink. In the end to fix him they had to make him fear fire. Same for the Green Lanterns who had to initially worry about wood and yellow.

Because we created untouchable gods by accident. The same applies to the being we commonly consider as gods. You can see it in the Bible itself. In the Old Testament Jehovah has serious limitations to his powers. Yet we still consider him omnipotent when he actually regularly demonstrates a power level lower than most Hindu gods in any literature associated with him.

The truth is we just made him so in the same way that we made Superman powerful. We kept finding out how the world worked and had to keep removing “God Did It” as an answer.

The reality is that we don’t know what caused the universe to come to existence. We have theories and we are experimenting on it and people far more knowledgable about that sort of thing can talk you lot to death about that. But what people did was they created an answer. They created the gods to fill in that role of what caused the universe to be. Which is why we see gods have some bizarrely human ideas.

There was a hole in our knowledge and we merely filled it with magic and that is what a god is. We can no more disprove the existence of a god than we can disprove the existence of unicorns. There is no evidence to suggest the existence of one. Nothing. Nada. The entire reason for belief in such a being is that we have always believed. It is a tradition to believe in such a being.

And if we are to look at it with scientific rigour, science doesn’t disprove things. Science does not say that unicorns don’t exist. Honestly? Science says that there is no evidence to suggest the existence of unicorns. If you provided evidence science will change it’s stance. There is no evidence to suggest the existence of any such god. Not one iota. Everything we have going for it is mere conjecture and conjecture based on ignorance of scientific evidence and indeed how the universe works.

2. Can you prove deductively that there is no creating agent for the universe? If the answer is yes, then you must show your work if it is to be considered anything more than just a claim

I honestly do not know. What I do know is that to date there has been no evidence for any creative agent that’s a being. We honestly do not know. There are mathematical theories and hypothesis which support a creation of the Universe without the requirement of “magic” and let’s face a “god” works through entirely unknown, mystical and unknown principles that void all natural and scientific understanding and this is basically magic.

This kind of thinking is the death of progress.

Let’s look at Islam for this. Islam’s rising fundamentalism means that scientific enquiry has faltered and there is no academic rigour. What occurs is not science but applied theology. The attempt to find divinely ordained evidence. When we assume god is behind everything then we are not doing science but ideologically shoring up a faulty assumption.

The correct answer to what caused the Big Bang is “I Do Not Know”. If you think your god is an acceptable answer then you must accept every creator god as equally probable and to worship one out of the myriad is just intellectual dishonesty. Why stop at one god after all?

And I repeat. The people making the extraordinary claim are the ones who must provide evidence. There is no empirical evidence for any of the gods we have believed in. If you insist Superman is real you must demonstrate him and his powers in an empirical fashion. Otherwise he resides in the comic books. Why should we allow literature as evidence for your gods but not for Superman or Harry Potter? So we have to throw the literature out. Without the literature there is even less evidence for a god. Oh you can claim Jesus was real to which I will respond with then so are L. Ron Hubbard and Siddartha Gauthama that doesn’t mean Scientology, Hinduism and Buddhism are real too.

If we bring only empirical evidence to fisticuffs then I am afraid there is no CERN for gods. We have devices that are explaining how our very universe was created and possibly will explain how existence came to be. And it’s not being done by people pouring over scripture or through prayer but through testing empirical science.

I won’t rule out the existence of your gods. However it is a vanishingly small chance.

The fact remains that both of us have claims. It’s just that my claim is backed up by more evidence while yours are backed up by stories that are most likely as fictitious as Harry Potter. Of course we cannot get to Diagon Alley! It’s because we are Muggles! And Muggle Science cannot do that!

If we were to take the sum total knowledge of a major religion and destroy it and the sum total of science and destroy it, mankind if it survived would recreate the exact same science in the way it understands the world but would create an entirely different religion.

And so we put our faith in science rather than the stories of ancient shepherds who’s box of existence was tiny. And one day our ancestors may laugh at our own thoughts on how large the box really is. But I am pretty sure they won’t be doing so because they discovered Brahma or Yahweh or any other creator god.

3. What are your moral principles? List them completely.

Oh then we would be here for ages and I already have rambled on a lot.

I suppose if we can simplify it. Right and wrong are not based on your action but the consequences. What may feel good and right may in fact be harmful and wrong. We must think about what our actions have on our fellow man.

And why should we be good? Well? We are Part of Society. A human is weak, naked and slow. Humans are more than the sum of their parts though. We are thinkers and makers of things but that requires team work. And the team needs rules. If we let children play then they will fight. But then rules will be made. So that the game may continue.

Play in all animals is education for life.

I wish to be treated well, and I assume others wish to be treated well. If I do not play fair then no one will play with me. These are basic rules of the playground. The kid who cheats and who lies and who steals doesn’t have friends. In our ancestor’s world such people would have been abandoned to a feral death. Any society without rules and “moral codes” will perish and be weak.

Let’s look at the UK versus Afghanistan. In Afghanistan “might makes right”. You have to ask yourself what a man can do and get a way with and what the consequences of those actions are. In the UK? There are rules that we adhere to in order to have a smoothly running society. Which is why I don’t drive a Toyota with a machine gun strapped to the top around Manchester.

Basically? Be good to others and treat them like you would wish to be treated yourself, fight for the poorest so that others may fight for you and leave the world in a better state for those who come after us. And you don’t need any gods to be realise why these are good things.

And I understand that decisions are difficult. Many a time you will make the right decision for the wrong reason or the wrong decision for the right reason. Great evil has been done by men thinking they are doing good. No Nazi ever considered themselves the villains as they marched Jews to the gas chamber after all. So when in doubt, try to take the past of least suffering to others.

If I grew up in Afghanistan then perhaps I would have to have a different ethos to survive but within the luxury of the developed world, I don’t have to mark my territory and machete anyone who looks at me funny.

Oh and never expect others to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself.

4. What makes your moral principles “moral”, rather than personal guidelines? Perhaps you will want to define “moral” from the Atheist viewpoint.

Because they genuinely improve the lot of others. Why do you not murder? Because a god told you not to or because you know that stopping the life of another person means the termination of that person’s entire existence. Do you know how unique one person is?

Every single atom in you was forged in the heart of nuclear fire of unimaginable power in a star and as these stars died these elements were spread across the galaxy. And they formed more new stars and new planets and from that everything. Your shoes, your phone, your laptop, those bananas in your fridge. EVERYTHING was made in the heart of a star. Including you. Every single atom that is within you. You may be small and insignificant but you are unique in this existence. To eliminate a life? That is a waste. You only get one, imagine losing that chance to live.

To blindly obey a rule without knowing this? Then to me you are a parasite. Blindly feeding off the moral code without any understanding of it or rationale. Obeying it because you cannot think for yourself. You don’t realise that life is not just a beating heart and a functional brain but everything experienced. From jealous, rage and sorrow to selflessness, calm and joy. From Hate To Love. Every single experience you feel right now is important because it defines you. And we mostly have difficulty understanding each other because we rarely value this experience.

I have lost things you will never value. I have seen things you will not believe. And I have gained things that you will never understand, because you have not lived those experiences for yourself. I have seen the worst of mankind. I have seen women burned alive, children murdered. I have seen dismembered bodies and people who just couldn’t live another day and I steeled my heart knowing all this. I have dug graves.

I have also seen the best of mankind. I have seen fathers and mothers sacrifice themselves for the love of their children. I have seen strangers help those who are invisible to the rest of the world. I have seen the beauty of humanity and the ugly and I wish to make the world beautiful.

Each of us is a story, we are history in the making. Each of us is potential to do amazing things if and only if we try.

And to take that away? To take away days never lived and time never spent? That is a crime.

That’s why I am a doctor. Because the only thing I can do as a human is give the gift of time.

And you may see this as a personal guideline rather than some absolute morality and that is fine by me. I won’t hold you to it. The Avicenna Inquisition doesn’t knock on your door and forces you to do charity work. As long as you don’t harm people I am fine with whatever existence you chose. This is my code. This is my Dharma and like Karna I shall live and die by it unless proven wrong.

The path of good or the path of least evil. That is the best we can do in life.

You can seek to live in the Kingdom of the gods or in the Republic of Man. Heaven is what you make and in the words of Kabir.

Those who walk in the shade of love, have paradise at their feet. Heaven is what we make of it on this planet with the time we have. And part of what I believe in is making this place a little better in some small way.

5. What is the source of your morals?

Experience, Responsibility and a hint of too many Comic Books in my case.

6. What makes that source a “moral authority”, with unquestionable, indubitable ability to determine what is morally Good and what is morally Evil in a purely materialist context, where evolution has caused our existence? 

Because it’s morality gained through living. Through immersing yourself in humanity. It’s not a code that comes from above but from within. It’s understanding of how the world works and why things happen. To the Christian theft is a crime, to me it’s a problem with other causes. Why? Because very few people steal for the sake of theft. They steal because they are poor or because they want something or because of greed. Those are “reasons” for theft. Not wickedness. We cannot stop all the reasons but those we can stop we can.

The Aztec believed in a god called Tlaloc. They believed the rains came from him. To satiate this bloodthirsty god required a crying infant. So they would sacrifice a terrified baby.

They believed this to be moral. They believed this to be good. They believed this to be kind and just. Just as Abraham believed that Jehovah’s instruction to sacrifice Issac was good and moral too.

And there in lies the problem. If we are to suggest that your gods are moral authorities they behave with less morality than me. Jehovah is a genocidal beast who exhorts slavery and rape. How is “he” any more a moral authority than Tlaloc? Tlaloc may have demanded the sacrifice of a baby a year but he never (allegedly in plot) killed the first born children of Egypt or wiped out all of humanity through  drowning.

The Bible doesn’t say treat women as equals or don’t keep slaves. It tells you to not beat them with a really thick stick else you may kill them. That’s not moral that’s sound economic advice (if you are a slaver and a wife beater). We don’t judge our gods for their actions but if we look carefully most of our gods are terrible and immoral. We have exceeded them. We have made the world a better place by eschewing their ideas and by thinking for ourselves.

We cannot always determine what is right and what is wrong. And that’s because right and wrong are a very simplistic way of looking at the world. Too often there is no right or wrong. There are shades of grey. There are sometimes no win situations. The real world is a better teacher of morality than the tired dictim of religion because morality is flexible to the situation. It’s wrong to steal, but is it wrong to steal to survive? The Bible says all theft is bad, but you know for a fact that a rich man stealing millions is worse than a poor man stealing to live.

It is why people happily quote Leviticus while harassing women at abortion clinics or the GLBT while chomping down on Bacon Sandwiches. Because even their morality is a grab bag of ideas from experience. These same people know that they can never push for “slavery” because they know what will happen and indeed what has happened in human history.

Experience is the foundation of modern morality. To not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. And accepting that responsibility of our selves means we have to think about our actions.

The superhero stuff probably made me want to do good. And maybe gave me a taste for capes.

7. Can you empirically prove your morals to be valid for all humans? If the answer is yes, then you must show your work if it is to be considered anything more than just a claim. 

Yes.

Jehovah exhorts his followers to genocide and advices them on slavery. He does not say “Lads! Stick to the inalienable principles of man” but says “The guys without foreskins? Kill em all! And rape their daughters! K?”. Oh you may say “But he gave rules on how to treat slaves better”, but honestly they were STILL slaves.

It is through our experiences with the evils of slavery and our idea that perhaps slavery may not be so good after all that we gave it up. It required a fair few flips in church ideology but they learnt not from their Bibles but by experiencing slavery first hand as observers and deciding that it was a truly inhuman institution.

And Christians supported slavery through the Bible. Leviticus itself which is used to harass and even justify the murder of Abortion Doctors and the GLBT supports slavery.

But we have moved past that by experience and by  quietly ignoring the less tasteful parts of our religions.

See, people try to do the best that they can when faced with mad religious laws. They jump through hoops and make twists to be moral. But they do so because they understand experience and understanding and responsibility are better dictators of morality than any book.

All our current ideas of what is moral are not from any divine source but vital to survival of humanity. Evolution is not about you personally surviving but the species continuing. It’s why peacocks exist (they die much younger than peahens because they get eaten by predators because they are bright blue and slow compared to the camoflauged peahens). Their major disadvantage is overwhelmed by the fact that they DO GET TO BREED and breeding is what determines the next generation.

Now imagine an ape. A proto-human. It steals from the group. Now the group is faced with three choices. Either everyone steals from each other, or they tolerate this thieving  simian or they chase it out from the group.

If everyone steals then the group’s cohesiveness is lost. There is no trust. There is no defence against predators, no cooperation against prey and to hunt and gather. If they simply ignore the thefts then they all get weaker and mistrust forments and there is no cooperation too. If they punish this caveman criminal then what we see is the origin of “the law” and “morality”. They may throw him out or beat him or not trust him. Now his chances to breed are diminished and his genes are written out. That is bad survival. Now cooperation? That passes on genes both by encouraging the social group to survive adverse events and by not getting your head bashed in by the group who is sick of your bullshit dragging them down.

There is an evolutionary benefit to being moral.

8. Why should anyone trust you, or any Atheist? Be specific.

Why should you trust any religious person or any person what so ever? You can live in a paranoid world of fear or you can have a little faith in humans.

Humans appear disappointing if you read the news but that’s because “Human Behaves Well, Everything Okay” doesn’t sell. “Human Eats Rare Faberge Eggs, Poops on Queen” makes headlines. Bad behaviour is rewarded by exposure. So we think the world is getting worse. The funny thing is murders are down, rapes are down and crime as a whole is falling. At no point in history have we ever been this “moral”. Oh you hear the naysayers and they usually bring up the crime of abortion or being gay but that’s just finding new things to be mad about.

Every Single Achievement today has been due to the sweat, blood, tears and brains of humanity. Through skill, courage, intelligence we have wrought the modern world.

Not the gods you chose to pray to. I may be untrustworthy but I am untrustworthy but at least I exist and can actually do something.

9. Can you prove, empirically, that the incident which is referred to as the Miracle at Lourdes was purely a physical phenomenon? If the answer is yes, then you must show your work if it is to be considered anything more than just a claim.

There are 67 claimed miracles at Lourdes and in hindsight many of them are NOT miracles. Basically? Any unlikely improvement in the condition of a patient is touted as a miracle which is nonsensical. Sometimes patients get better despite all statistical chance. Sometimes long shots win horse races too.

Medicine works on statistical probabilities. Using this treatment, 95% of people get better. Using this treatment, 5% of people get better. When you win that 5% lottery then it’s a miracle. Just because you don’t know how something happened doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.

Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray. In recorded History less than 10 people EVER have died due to that. A fish that’s not dangerous but painful attacked him, a man who wrestled man eating crocodiles and hit him in the precise spot with the precise force needed to kill him. It was bad luck and unbelievably so.

Not a miracle. If we are capable of accepting negative unlikely things as bad luck, then we should be more skeptical about miracles.

I once worked a miracle cure. Well the patient had a stroke. His hand had recovered but he couldn’t walk. Now if you are a medic you know that one of the most common areas of cerebro-vascular accident is the pyramid tract. A small area where the muscle control nerves pass through. If you regain the usage of the hand you should be able to walk.

Just 3 days after meeting me he was hobbling. In a week he was moving around with a cane. Miracle eh? No. I just made him use his damn leg by telling his son to not carry him around. Miracles are more amazing when you understand that they aren’t. Any improvement to a patient that’s not explainable by current medicine or by the doctors at Lourdes who say “I don’t know what’s improving her condition” is put down to Jesus when it could as well be Apollo, the Physician god of Greece for all the sense that makes.

Now as for the specific miracle you are discussing, we are probably trying to discuss the more infamous Miracle of the Sun or the Our Lady of Lourdes at Fatima miracle.

Get a Bright Light. Now stare at it, you already begin to observe the “floaters” within your eye making random shapes and moving about. Now shut your eyes. Observe the dancing suns. That’s your retina’s depolarisation continuing due to strong stimulus. Now imagine staring at the actual sun, an event you are NOT supposed to do mixed in with religious fervour and a distinct desire to witness a miracle.

TADAA! Dancing Suns or something that looks like it!

Incidentally? Don’t do it. I am pretty sure a fair few people got blinded by that incident. Like the “Emperor’s New Clothes” should have a sequel called “The Boy who got tortured because he couldn’t keeps his mouth shut around a clearly insane man with absolute power”, the Dancing Sun miracle should have one called “The day people stared at the sun and went blind”.

Try it with a light,

10. Are your political leanings toward the Left? If so explain why in detail (i.e., “Yes, because….)

Centre Left. Because I am British and frankly your choices in the USA consist of “Right Wingers” versus “Ultra Right Wingers”. Obama is “Centre Right Wing”. Our Conservative party is probably the equivalent to the Democrats of the USA.

For purely selfish reasons. In every society where unchecked capitalism has occurred, eventually poor people get sick of it and start lining up rich bastards and killing them.

Okay a more sensible answer. There is nothing wrong with the acquisition of wealth. But not at the cost of the poorest and the weakest. We owe each other in society a safety net for when things go wrong. The poorest deserve the same opportunity of medical care, education and chances to earn a decent wage as the richest. It is for this reason that I am a believer in some ideas of socialism as the reigns to control capitalism. I like money, having none at the moment made me learn the value of it. I want money later in life and I want things. But I don’t want things while people are poor and at their cost. I would rather give my fair share to society and make sure that those people have a chance that I got too. That is why I am economically left wingish.

Socially though? Well it’s simple. The right wing are bloody mad. The American Right Wing live in a fantasy world and what they wish is detrimental to society as a whole. If they had their way they would insert Jesus into children in science class in a nation where science education is already sub par. If they had their way and they have, women would seek abortions from coathangers and have less access to basic obstetric care than my patients. If they had their way we would be discriminating against anyone who didn’t follow a judeo-christian axis of faith. If they had their way we would not be treating the GLBT as we aspire to. And through this all is discrimination which allows the rich to get richer and the poor to stay poor and stupid.

Watching poor Americans vote Republican because their Church tells them to is like watching Cows voting for McDonalds.

You may say “But Avi! How can you value human life but still be in favour of abortion”. Because quality of life is important too. You are alive in a cellular sense but not in a sentient sense. At that stage of life you are human by DNA but not by humanity. It is no different from turning off a life support machine and you may think that merely breathing is important but brain function is what determines life. The rest is just “life support”.

11. At what age did you become an Atheist? What is your current age?

Aged 16 when I decided I didn’t really believe in Hinduism. I am now 27. 11 years of no gods.

And there you have it folks.

Comments

  1. Larry Silverstein says

    Darwinism and Materialism: They Sink or Swim Together
    By Tom Bethell

    Will Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt be “the most despised science book” of 2013?
    Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design
    By Stephen C. Meyer
    (HarperOne, 496 pages, $28.99)

    Recently the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer published Darwin’s Doubt, a book that raises many questions about the theory of evolution. As his title tells us, Darwin himself shared one of these doubts. The book has sold well, reaching #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, #4 on the Los Angeles Times list, and #10 on Publishers Weekly.

    Organisms are intelligently designed, says Meyer, who has a PhD from Cambridge University in the philosophy of science. His book is an education, demanding attentive reading but no specialized knowledge. To a large extent it uses the facts and arguments of professional biologists, some bordering on open dissent from the orthodoxy.

    Darwin’s Doubt has also been subjected to a barrage of what can only be called hate. “Mendacious intellectual pornography” is among the more inventive descriptions. Hundreds of negative comments appeared on Amazon review page within hours of the 498-page book’s publication.

    Donald Prothero, a geologist and research associate at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, typified many when he said that Meyer is a “fool,” “incompetent,” guilty of “ignorance,” in “way over his head,” with a “completely false understanding of the subject.” Further, Meyer argues “dishonestly,” promotes a “fundamental lie,” promotes a “fairy tale,” and so on.

    Would a scientist make his case that way if he had real arguments? Prothero did attempt a few substantive criticisms, but inadvertently demonstrated that he had not read Meyer’s chapters that had already addressed them. Prothero, in truth, hankers after creationism as his preferred target. But Meyer’s book is devoid of creationism or biblical references. It’s all science.

    Along with the attacks, we find more and more biologists recognizing that intelligent design (ID) is a serious endeavor. Meyer’s book has been praised by George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School; Scott Turner, a professor of biology at SUNY; Russell Carlson, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Georgia and a dozen others. George Gilder, most recently the author of Knowledge and Power, calls Darwin’s Doubt “the best science book ever written.”

    So what is going on? A clue was provided by Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, published last year and the subject of a Weekly Standard cover story (“The Heretic”) by former American Spectator writer Andy Ferguson. But before discussing Nagel, who encountered his own shower of brickbats, I’ll say a little more about Darwin’s Doubt.

    Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species claimed that organisms arose by random variation and natural selection, which must have been a slow business. But the fossil record shows that the major animal forms appeared without visible predecessors — an event known as the Cambrian Explosion. As the Darwinian rulebook regards such sudden changes as highly improbable, the evolutionists encounter two problems: insufficient time and missing fossils.

    The Cambrian explosion occurred about 530 million years ago. More recent discoveries in China showed that the new phyla — for example arthropods, chordates, and brachiopods — appeared within a ten-million-year period. Others say the “explosive” period took only 5 to 6 million years. Compared with the reported three-billion year history of life on earth, the Cambrian explosion is the equivalent of just a few minutes in a 24-hour day. It happened in a geological blink.

    The Chinese discoveries confirmed what had already been found at the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. No plausible ancestors have yet been found in lower strata, either in Canada or China. Some of the Cambrian creatures are highly complex. Among the earliest are well-preserved trilobites, with lens-focusing eyes and a 360-degree field of vision. “Not so primitive,” as Meyer writes.

    Cambrian phyla were originally discovered in Wales. Darwin knew about them and realized that unless ancestors were found, his theory was in trouble. So the problem has been understood for over 150 years.
    Meyer’s discussion of the problem is unrivaled in its detail and clarity. He covers the various escape routes that Darwinians have proposed. Maybe, for example, the antecedent forms lacked hard parts and so couldn’t fossilize? Awkward fact: Lots of soft-bodied organisms from the pre-Cambrian have been preserved, but they don’t get us closer to a solution.

    Another chapter discusses what is known as punctuated equilibrium. The paleontologist Niles Eldredge became an expert on the ancient trilobites. At first it bothered him that they were all so similar. Then he concluded that “the absence of change” was itself significant. Stasis was “data,” not a mere artifact. With Stephen Jay Gould, he formulated “punctuated equilibrium,” which became well known. Long periods when animal forms are static, they theorized, are punctuated by periods in which new forms of animal life arise quickly — so quickly we can’t expect them to leave a record.

    Years ago, speaking in a tone of subdued irony for my benefit, Donn Rosen, a curator of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, wryly summarized what is involved: “Darwin said that speciation occurred too slowly for us to see it. Gould and Eldredge said it occurred too quickly for us to see it. Either way we don’t see it.”

    More formally, Meyer shows that “punk eek” doesn’t work out as hoped. Not only have those fleeting ancestors not appeared anywhere, the proponents of punctuated equilibrium never came up with a mechanism that could plausibly produce so much anatomical change so quickly.
    Meyer also describes how work in statistical paleontology has undermined the idea that the missing ancestral fossils are merely an artifact of incomplete sampling. If you hunt in lots of different places and keep unearthing the same old specimens, it becomes ever harder to maintain that you still haven’t looked hard enough. Maybe the missing ones never were there to begin with.

    A generation ago, Colin Patterson, the senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said in a public forum that he didn’t know of any evidence for evolution. There was some grumbling, but he knew that the crucial evidence was missing. And like Thomas Nagel today, he emphasized that he was an atheist — this was no creationist speaking.

    IN THE SECOND PART of Meyer’s book, “How to Build an Animal,” the argument changes. Meyer shows that building new animal body plans requires the origin of new genetic information and “epigenetic” information (biological information stored in places outside of DNA). He shows the Cambrian explosion is not just an explosion of new forms of animal life, but an explosion of the information or instructions necessary to build them.

    But to generate new information, neo-Darwinism relies on mutations — random changes in the arrangement of the chemical “bases” that function like alphabetic characters in the genetic text stored in DNA. And to build whole new animals, lots of major mutations are needed, but most are lethal.

    The geneticist Hermann J. Muller, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1946, bombarded fruit flies with X-rays, which he thought would “speed up evolution.” But nothing came of it. Fruit flies not killed by the X-rays remained fruit flies. Also, mutations that occur early in embryonic development are always lethal — generating “dead animals incapable of further evolution,” as Meyer writes. Late-acting mutations may be viable, but these “do not affect global animal architectures.” Hence the Darwinian dilemma: “Major changes are not viable; viable changes are not major.”

    Here Meyer also demonstrates the mathematical implausibility of the neo-Darwinian explanation for the origin of new genetic information. The speedy appearance of animals with new body plans creates a big statistical problem. Its key point is easily grasped. Guessing a one-digit number might be easy and won’t take that long. But guessing a ten or a one hundred digit number will likely take you a very long time. In biology, random mutations are equivalent to the “guesses” and the DNA and proteins are like numbers with hundreds or thousands of precisely arranged digits. The “right guess” corresponds to a DNA sequence that will produce a new protein with some heritable “adaptive” benefit for the offspring.

    In all animals we find intricately folded proteins made of hundreds of precisely arranged sequences of amino acids. Meyer cites the work of molecular biologist Douglas Axe who has shown that generating even just one new protein by mutating DNA at random has a prohibitively small chance of ever occurring even on the scale of evolutionary deep time. The number of amino acid combinations that mutations much search vastly exceeds the time that is available to evolutionary history, let alone the brief period of the Cambrian explosion.

    It gets worse. The improbability of a right guess, or sequence, must be multiplied over and over, because the next mutation could cancel the first. Imagine you are on a desert island with buried treasure, and X marks the spot. You hope to find the X by taking random steps. You may indeed soon step in the right direction. But you have no way of knowing which direction that is. So your second step may return you to square one. The standard Darwinian view takes no account of mutations that reverse the progress made.

    In addition, proteins and genes cannot be randomly changed much at all without degrading their function. They are equivalent to small islands of function surrounded by huge seas of disorder. There is no way to “walk” from one island to another and still survive.

    Yet, transitions from one body plan to another must be viable at every stage. Darwin once argued that bears may have been ancestral to whales. Consider the difficulty. A brilliant engineer might conceivably know how to assemble a whale out of molecules, amino acids, DNA, proteins, and all its other parts. No one remotely knows how to do this. But let’s posit an engineer of superhuman skill.

    Then you give him the bad news. In making the bear-to-whale transition, the ever-modifying creature has to continue living, breathing, and reproducing even as those changes are taking place. That would be like telling a naval architect that he has to redesign an army tank into a submarine, but at every transition the vehicle has to function as a weapon of war. By the way, it must also be able to give birth to baby submarines.
    IN THE THIRD PART of his book, Meyer outlines his positive case for intelligent design. Ironically, here he uses the same principle of scientific reasoning that Darwin used in the Origin. Darwin subscribed to a principle of scientific reasoning known as the Vera Causa principle. This asserts that scientists should seek to explain events in the remote past by causes “now in operation.” Meyer applies this to the question of the origin of the information necessary to produce new forms of animal life. He argues that the only known cause of the origin of the kind of digital information that arises in the Cambrian explosion is intelligent activity. He quotes the information theorist Henry Quastler who stated that “the creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” Thus, he concludes, using Darwin’s principle, that intelligent design provides the best explanation for the Cambrian information explosion.

    If a correct scientific theory is pursued, we expect new knowledge to comport with the theory. Yet recent discoveries, especially in molecular biology, were not foreseen and have weakened Darwinism. For example, Darwin’s German contemporary and supporter Ernst Haeckel viewed the cell as a simple lump of “protoplasm.” Now we know that it is a hi-tech nano-factory complicated beyond comprehension. A cell can also reproduce itself, something no man-made machine has yet been able to do.

    It is said that intelligent design makes no predictions, but it does, and one has been dramatically confirmed. William Dembski, the author of several ID books, predicted in 1998: “On an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If on the other hand organisms are designed, we expect DNA as much as possible to exhibit function.” The “junk DNA” theory has been supported by most leading biologists, including NIH Director Francis Collins.

    But Dembski’s view was confirmed last year by prestigious science journals, including Nature. They published papers on the ENCODE project, challenging the view that DNA contains mostly a record of the “errors” in the Darwinian process. ENCODE reported last year that over 80% of DNA in the human genome “serves some purpose, biochemically speaking.” Earlier, 98% had been considered junk.

    Meyer also reviews the “Rules of Science” decreeing what is permitted if an investigation is to be called scientific. “Methodological naturalism” is the main one today: Only material causes are permitted. That rule is the basis for Darwinian accusations that ID is creationism. ID does admit non-material causes, thereby flouting the (recently imposed) rule obliging scientists to adhere to naturalism all the way.

    Yet science itself abounds with non-material entities. Information is non-material and if it is essential for building organisms, how is it transmitted to the three-dimensional world of matter? There’s an obvious parallel, Meyer points out. How are the decisions we make in our own conscious minds transmitted to the world of physical matter? We know every day that we can transform our mental decisions into physical acts. We choose to lift our arm, and it lifts.

    Neuroscience hopes to explain this materially — to show how the brain’s nerve endings translate into consciousness, thence into acts. But one may predict that they will keep looking for a long time, because the gulf separating matter and consciousness is greater than that separating us from the remotest galaxy. That doesn’t mean that mind is too remote, unreal, or can be excluded from science. Mind is within us and nothing can be closer. Without it, the very ideas, theories, and arguments of science wouldn’t exist.
    If our own minds can disturb matter in ways that cannot be explained by materialists, is it not possible that some larger or more encompassing Mind can impact the world of nature? No, say the materialists. Why not? Because, in their philosophy, matter is all that exists. That’s why they call themselves materialists. And that is why Thomas Nagel’s book is so significant. His book is subtitled “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” Incidentally, Nagel has also gone out of his way to praise Stephen Meyer.

    Even though Nagel is a prominent philosopher with an endowed chair at New York University, his book was reviled by prominent evolutionists — so much so that the New Republic called them “Darwinian dittoheads.” In Britain, the Guardian newspaper called Mind and Cosmos “the most despised science book of 2012.” Maybe Meyer will win that honor in 2013.

    Materialism, sometimes called naturalism, is the belief that matter — molecules in motion — is all that exists. Everything else: mind, consciousness, spirit — must somehow be reduced to the orchestrated firing of neurons. It was this bleak philosophy that Nagel challenged.

    The point is that if matter is all that exists, then something like Darwinism must be true, because highly complex organisms are real; not just men but mice, and on down to bacteria. How did they get here, in a purely material world? They must have accumulated themselves, bit by accidental bit, over a very long period. Which is close to being a re-description of Darwin’s theory. Darwin wrote in a notebook that he was a materialist himself, but hardly dare say so openly. His theory of evolution by natural selection was his attempt to confine science to an exclusive reliance on material causes.

    It follows that those Darwinists who are also materialists — most of them are — can take this philosophy as their backstop and relax. They don’t have to master or rebut ID arguments. They don’t even have to listen to them. Their science is already built into their philosophy. But if Nagel’s doubts about materialism hold up (and few laymen really accept materialism in the first place, because it denies free will and we know that consciousness is real), then the idea that there never was much to support Darwinism may one day be accepted. It was extrapolated from the observed facts of variation; it was assumed but has never been demonstrated.

    This much is clear: The Darwinists cannot live with ID as their enemy. They can easily co-exist with creationism, but that came from the Bible, which can be dismissed in our secular age. They rage at ID, on the other hand, because it challenges them in what they have seen as their strong suit: Science.

    About the Author
    Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).

  2. gshelley says

    @51
    lovely irrelevant cut and paste

    His book is an education, demanding attentive reading but no specialized knowledge. To a large extent it uses the facts and arguments of professional biologists, some bordering on open dissent from the orthodoxy.

    No specailized knowledge is how most of the reviewers have described the writing in this book.

    t is said that intelligent design makes no predictions, but it does, and one has been dramatically confirmed. William Dembski, the author of several ID books, predicted in 1998: “On an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If on the other hand organisms are designed, we expect DNA as much as possible to exhibit function.” The “junk DNA” theory has been supported by most leading biologists, including NIH Director Francis Collins.

    But Dembski’s view was confirmed last year by prestigious science journals, including Nature. They published papers on the ENCODE project, challenging the view that DNA contains mostly a record of the “errors” in the Darwinian process. ENCODE reported last year that over 80% of DNA in the human genome “serves some purpose, biochemically speaking.” Earlier, 98% had been considered junk.

    Is the author ignorant or just dishonest? Much of this comes from it being something of a slang term with a fairly loose definition depending on who is using it. It can mean non expressed DNA, or non coding DNA or even non conserved DNA.
    Most evolutionary scientists would have said that it is reasonable that there is some selection pressure responsible for keeping “junk DNA” in the genome (it is not absolutely necessary, an event could dump hundreds of millions of bases, and it could take a long time for it to be lost) and many experiments have shown that the junk plays a role in structure or expression. In fact, there is so much wrong with that statement, that it would take a full sized blog post to refute it (as many people have)

    Would a scientist make his case that way if he had real arguments? Prothero did attempt a few substantive criticisms, but inadvertently demonstrated that he had not read Meyer’s chapters that had already addressed them. Prothero, in truth, hankers after creationism as his preferred target. But Meyer’s book is devoid of creationism or biblical references. It’s all science.

    A scientist would not argue that way against a fellow scientist who was demonstrating science and integrity, but would against someone propogating lies and ignorance
    The actual review is on Amazon, so it is easy to compare it to the coutner by “nu huh” as evidenced above
    http://www.amazon.com/review/R2HNOHERF138DU

  3. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Good answers (to stupid questions) Avi, I just might have to steal em.

    Too bad about Larry hijacking the comment thread for his screeds. You really should reconsider your no banning policy, he really isn’t adding anything to the conversation.

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    ===========================================================================================
    ARGUMENT WITH ANTHEIST
    ===========================================================================================

    While arguing with an Athiest:

    ==========
    1st Step):
    ==========

    First of all ask him/her that there are thousands of beliefs/faiths in the world
    e.g.

    1) You don’t believe in God

    2) Muslims believes in One God “ALLAH (A.J)” as the creator of every thing, Allah is
    present from ever and will remain for ever.

    3) One may can think that he is the creator of every thing and is driving whole universe
    .
    .
    .
    Numreous concept

    but
    it is universal truth that

    ====================================
    “TRUTH IS ONLY ONE (AND HAS PROOFs),
    ====================================

    HOWEVER

    =============================================
    ASSUMPTIONS CAN BE INFINITE (WITHOUT PROOFs)”
    =============================================

    ==========
    2nd Step):
    ==========

    Secondly ask him if he /she can put any proof for his belief, which made him to
    believe in this concept that why is He/She satisfied with this faith (Atheism).

    ==========
    3rd Step):
    ==========

    Last show him the signs placed by Allah (A.J) in this universe and try to convince
    him, according to your best.

    ==========
    4th Step):
    ==========

    At last ask him that if you are right (i.e. your belief) then nothing is to be
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    But

    what if we will be right, In that case surly you will be a loser and you will have to face
    the punishment / Anger of God.

    ===========================================================================================

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