Machine guns in the Yu dynasty

Please note: It was brought to my attention that this was a repeat of an argument that I already posted on this blog earlier. I have decided to leave it up because the argument is more fleshed out than it used to be. See the comments section for a link to the first time I posted it.

One of the more interesting, but frustrating discussions I had online recently was on the first cause argument. The fellow with whom I had this discussion has a good scientific mind and frequently denounces creationism very eloquently. I don’t know eactly what his beliefs are, but I think I would characterize him as an agnostic theist. He appears to believe in a God, doesn’t claim that he can know for sure, but frequently insists that carefully qualified belief is a superior alternative to qualified non-belief.

The reasoning, as I understand it, goes like this: We don’t know where the universe comes from. But we do know from experience that intelligent agents can create many wonderful and complex things. We can’t be certain that the universe was created by an intelligence. But we do know that it’s POSSIBLE in principle. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense, purely from a scientific, deductive point of view, to take seriously the hypothesis that intelligence was probably involved?

So I have a counter-proposal, and it’s this. Emperor Yu the Great, who founded the Chinese Xia dynasty around 2070 BCE, was killed by a machine gun.

Now you may say that this is implausible. You may even complain: “But that’s ridiculous. There weren’t any machine guns in 2070 BCE.” To which I say, no, that’s just your opinion. You weren’t there in ancient China, and the historical records from that far back are kind of spotty anyway. But I say it is worth seriously considering the hypothesis that there was a machine gun that killed Emperor Wu, even though we’re not aware of any that exist.

Why? Well, it is much easier to kill someone with a machine gun than without one. Wikipedia’s description of his death is pretty vague, saying only that he was killed “while on a hunting tour.” Well, there’s another point in my favor. We know today that many people hunt with machine guns, and that machine guns actually make a hunt much EASIER than being without one.

So, if there is even a small chance that some machine guns were present, then shouldn’t we deduce that the use of one on Yu’s hunting trip is extremely probable, and his subsequent “accident” was in fact machine gun induced? Why should we rule out the existence of something as complex as a machine gun, which can supply such a handy explanation for Emperor Yu’s death, just because of nitpicky details like incomplete historical knowledge?

Yeah, I’m not particularly persuaded by my own argument either, but I think it’s no more egregious than the logic that is applied to some unspecified intelligent creator.

I mean, in the first place, all of our experience with machine guns shows that they don’t just existence at random. They are the end result of a extensive tinkering with progressively more sophisticated designs. There is a historical progression of technology that we can follow. These technological changes are based purely in physical laws and processes. Humans don’t pluck designs out of some magic supernatural ether; they build on past successes over time. We have never seen an example of a machine gun that didn’t require the historical development of a machine gun.

Well, we know much the same thing about brains. We have seen the historical record of brains coming into existence; we know that they come about as the end product of highly complex natural processes. We have never seen a brain that didn’t require such a thing. No magic. No anachronisms. No human brains appearing out of place during the Cambrian explosion. No signs of brains that are as smart or smarter than ours during times when plants or bacteria were the dominant life forms on earth.

Is it possible to imagine a magical brain that exists outside of earth and didn’t require an evolutionary process? Sure it is, and by the same token, it’s possible for a fully formed machine gun to have spontaneously appeared in the hands of Emperor Yu’s enemies, without the need for all that messy “historical progression of technology” to get in the way. I can’t prove that didn’t happen, nor can I prove that there isn’t a superbrain that didn’t evolve.

But I don’t find it a plausible assumption in either case. If you don’t like the logic of having a machine gun in 2000 BC, then I think I’m free to raise the same objection to having a brain in 14 billion BC.

You can’t just assume the existence of things like guns or minds at all periods in history for the sake of convenience. You are only justified in treating this as a reasonable suggestion when some other information specifically points to even the basic possibility of such a thing. And that’s what we mean when we say “We don’t believe in God because we lack evidence.” It isn’t enough to say “How else could these wonderful things have gotten here, if not through intelligence?”


Show #516 on Sunday, September 2, was a response to two items of viewer mail that the TV list received. Jeremy wrote initially to say he is a “religious atheist,” which he described as adhering to a secularized Taoism (pronounced Daoism). Within one week’s time another piece of mail came through addressing the issue of “where do atheists get meaning” in life?

In addition to these two letters, we have received numerous contacts from people asking “Why do you only always focus on Christianity?” Although Matt has addressed this in the past, I felt that a show exploring secular Taoism might be relevant on multiple fronts, and so chose that as the topic for #516.

The form of Taoism that is most prevalent, and with which most of us are familiar, is attributed to Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu may or may not have ever actually lived. But the text he is said to have written goes back about 2,500 years. The name “Lao Tzu” actually means “Old Man,” and it is doubtful that anyone named Lao Tzu authored the major Taoist work, Tao te Ching.

The Tao te Ching is a small collection of poetic Chinese sayings meant to describe the Tao and its operation. The title means literally, “The Book (Ching) of the application of (te) The Way (Tao).” And Tao, literally, means “The Way.” If you read the book, you will not find any list of “dos” and “don’ts.” There are no laws to memorize, and no condemnation or threats. The passages all sound something like this (#43):

The softest thing in the universeOvercomes the hardest thing in the universe.That without substance can enter where there is no room.Hence I know the value of non-action.

“Tao” does not mean “The Way” in the sense that we think of it in Christian models. It isn’t a way to achieve salvation. In fact, Taoists don’t believe in salvation. They wouldn’t understand what they need to be saved from—because they don’t interpret life, death or the natural world to be particularly problematic or flawed. They consider it to be simply, “the way” it is. In fact, “the way” it is, is what “The Way” (Tao) normally seems to represent. A reed is flexible—that is “The Way” (or Tao) of the reed.

Because the verses are so amorphous and malleable, they are interpreted in a number of ways by different people. However, this is not considered a problem for the Taoist—who believes that following his own Tao will quite naturally differ greatly from someone else following hers. It does not represent a single path for all of mankind—but a way of looking at life that will help each individual find the path that is right for him or her. It isn’t a mode of enlightenment or special knowledge. It is an affirmation that if one is willing to examine his/her life and motives, he/she can come to an understanding of what direction is best for himself.

Taoism prefers accommodation, flexibility, and seemless integration. The example I used on the program was one of Green Architecture. To build my house on a landscape means to impose myself upon that landscape. A Taoist would do his/her best to utilize the landscape in the most efficient way to support the house, while at the same time taking the environment into consideration as he/she plans his/her house.

Taoism is not concerned with universal origins and makes no claims about how the cosmos were constructed or when they began. Taoism only notes that the cosmos exist and appear to operate under observable laws, which are best used to one’s advantage rather than resisted. A counterweight would be an excellent example. When one has to lift a heavy object, one must oppose the natural force of gravity; but by applying a counterweight, we can actually use gravity to work for us, rather than struggling against it. With a counterweight, gravity can “lift” a heavy object for us.

Duality is another factor in Taoism. We understand that concepts like good necessarily indicate “not good” (or “evil” if you prefer to call it that). But duality goes beyond opposites. In Taoism, it is not so much a statement of X and -X, as it is X and nonX. In other words, there is no “opposite” to Tracie. But there is much that is “not Tracie.” So, the universe is divided, in the Taoist view, by what is Tracie and what is “not Tracie.” Likewise, the universe divides, dualistically, in any number of similar ways with regard to any “thing” you care to define.

I wrapped the show describing some personal views about Taoism from professed Taoists. And I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to get as many personal views as possible, to get an idea of how flexible this philosophy actually is. One can only really speak generally of it, as even the Tao te Ching not only fails to—but outright refuses to—define what Taoism is. According to the book, it is “nameless”—personally discerned—and cannot be accurately defined or described. Some have made the leap to call it “god.” But there is no direct indication that Lao Tzu was describing anything other than natural forces and pragmatic observations.

For further reading, I would actually recommend obtaining a copy of the Tao te Ching—perhaps at a local library (for free). The book is brief and, if you like poetry, actually somewhat relaxing to read. An annotated version with some historic reference would be preferable to a cold read if you are entirely unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy or have never read any similar texts. As timeless as it may seem to me, I have to admit that with any text, context is also important with the Tao te Ching.

Testing the supernatural

One criticism that is often applied to intelligent design is that it is fundamentally untestable and hence can never be scientific. But is this really true?

The classical notion of God is definitely untestable. A being that is intelligent and omnipotent, and doesn’t want to be found for its own reasons, can do whatever it wants to avoid being found. It can hide indefinitely, and it can even plant false evidence to trick people into reaching the wrong conclusion about the origin of the universe. That’s kind of what true believers are required to believe, in order to explain away the overwhelming lack of evidence for God.

There is an assumption among ID promoters that they don’t need to come up with ways to test the properties of the designer; all they have to do is detect objects that have the property of being designed, and the nature of the designer can remain comfortably outside the domain of scientific inquiry. However, that’s not necessarily true unless you assume that the designer is godlike — which of course they do, even though they lie and say that they don’t.

But I don’t think that this property of being hidden from investigation should be true of all supernatural events in principle. What does it mean to be supernatural? I think the usual understanding is that it’s something that exists outside the realm of the natural universe. But does this mean that a supernatural thing can do absolutely anything with no limits? Not necessarily. If the supernatural thing lives in its own universe, or its own metaverse, then that universe is probably subject to its own rules and limitations. Those rules wouldn’t necessarily be the rules of our universe, but they’d be rules nonetheless, and would require anything in that universe to behave in a way that is, at least in principle, also predictable.

Is it possible to test what the rules are? Well, it depends. Really, the interesting question at work is whether the other universe can interact with this one. If it can, then it ought to be testable in some way. If it can’t, then there is really no reason to care about it.

In the 90’s there was this sci-fi show called “Sliders” about a small group of people who figured out how to “slide” into parallel universes. These universes had parallel versions of all the main characters (except in universes where the characters died or were prevented from being born), and they had separate histories. In one world, the British won the war of independence, and America remained a colony owned by a preserved monarchy. In another world, the patriarchal society was reversed, women ran the world, and men were considered weaker and often objectified as sex objects.

These universes had apparently always existed, but until sliding was discovered, they were completely irrelevant to this one. If you asked me right now, “Is there a universe where Kazim is the popular and successful pastor of a megachurch?” I would say “There could be, but who cares?” For the time being at least, “sliding” is total fantasy. If Pastor Kazim can never meet Atheist Kazim, and vice versa, then we have no effect on each other’s lives, even potentially. I don’t rule out the possibility entirely. I can imagine it easily. The problem is, there are so many different implausible things for me to imagine, that there’s very little point in treating any of them as true without evidence.

If we ever proved that a supernatural entity did exist, it would only be because that entity interacted with the natural universe in some detectable way. Either a physical manifestation of something appears and does something, or we develop technology that can peer into the supernatural realm and see it there. Either way, there is an exchange of information between the two. And if that exists, then suddenly the supernatural thing is detectable by natural means. By some definitions, that would mean that the supernatural thing has become “natural.” That’s why I’m wary of calling things “supernatural”: the definition is vague and kind of fragile.

But if we’re slightly less ambitious in our assumptions about the designer’s identity, there’s no good reason to assume that we couldn’t learn about it through experiment. It presumably stuck its finger into our universe at certain points in history, and altered the universe in detectable ways. (Remember, if it didn’t do this then it’s irrelevant — just like Pastor Kazim may exist but is currently irrelevant to me.) If it did something we can detect, then we can see what the changes were and come up with likely mechanisms for how it interacts with our universe.

The only reason ID has to remain non-science is because they’ve set up a boatload of assumptions that make it non-science. As soon as they get creative and come up with hypotheses that can be confirmed or disconfirmed in some way, then they could figure out a way to do some legitimate research.

Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that.