Are there “20 Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer” ? I was asked how I respond to Peter Saunders’ claim that there are, and how I would respond to those questions. According to God’s Advocate, Saunders thinks “there have not been any decent responses to [these twenty questions] in the past 40yrs,” but evidently he isn’t bothering to read any of the best answers available or even to find out what they are. The questions themselves are pretty much boiler plate, and consist mostly of fallacious loaded questions that ignore the established science behind nearly every one. I noticed that my work over the years has answered every one, except a few that are so lame I really can’t believe he thinks they need a better answer than science has already provided (at least with respect to whether atheism is true–I think science can always know or learn more about anything, but at a certain point you know enough to know God is not involved in whatever it is).
So here are my answers to his twenty questions…
(1) • What caused the universe to exist?
Fallacy of loaded question. It is not established that the universe began, and thus had a cause at all.
Our universe began (at the Big Bang) but we have no way of knowing anymore what if anything preceded that event. And as for what caused our one specific universe, we already know the answer to that: the Big Bang did (an event and process that completely eluded all divine Christian revelation for two thousand years, as well as all divine Muslim and Jewish revelation throughout the whole of their existence). As to what caused the Big Bang, we have many viable theories (from Hawking’s The Grand Design to Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing to Vilenkin’s Many Worlds in One, all of which predict and explain numerous strange and often specific features of the universe that no theology has ever been able to deduce from the hypothesis that God did it). As far as figuring out which one is right, cosmological scientists are working on it. They’ve made tremendous progress. Theology has made none.
If we revise the question to ask something more abstract like “Why does the universe exist?” (thus admitting that maybe it has always existed in some form, and thus was never ultimately “caused,” but asking instead “why” it exists instead of something else, or nothing at all), then the answer is the same as why a god is supposed to exist. (He just does? Then the universe just does. He exists necessarily? Then a universe exists necessarily. We can play this game forever.) If we revise the question into something conditional like, “If all existence itself began, then what caused it?,” then the answer is any of dozens of possible things, all of which have a vastly lower specified complexity than a complex intelligent mind and therefore have a far greater prior probability (see The God Impossible)–and by explaining observed evidence better, they also have a far greater posterior probability as well. This follows from the argument from scale, including the mind-boggling scale of this universe’s lethality and inhospitability to life (indeed the universe is far better designed to generate black holes than life).
I discuss all these facts throughout my entries in the Carrier-Wanchick Debate. I have more recently described ten possible causal or explanatory theories of why an orderly universe exists in previous comments on my blog (and we needn’t know which are true to know they are all simpler theories, and often based in more background evidence, than any god hypothesis). I more formally outline why the evidence (the nature of the universe we find ourselves in) is far more likely on any such godless hypothesis than on any rational form of theism in my chapter “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed” in The End of Christianity (pp. 279-304). I’ll quote one key section of that to give you an idea of what I mean:
[T]his universe is 99.99999 percent composed of lethal radiation-filled vacuum, and 99.99999 percent of all the material in the universe comprises stars and black holes on which nothing can ever live, and 99.99999 percent of all other material in the universe (all planets, moons, clouds, asteroids) is barren of life or even outright inhospitable to life. In other words, the universe we observe is extraordinarily inhospitable to life. Even what tiny inconsequential bits of it are at all hospitable are extremely inefficient at producing life—at all, but far more so intelligent life …. One way or another, a universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain life. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that’s 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 (it would literally be smaller than a single proton). It’s exceedingly difficult to imagine a universe less conducive to life than that—indeed, that’s about as close to being completely incapable of producing life as any random universe can be expected to be, other than of course being completely incapable of producing life. (pp. 295-96)
That is exactly what we would have to see if life arose by accident. Because life can arise by accident only in a universe that large and old. The fact that we observe exactly what the theory of accidental origin requires and predicts is evidence that our theory is correct. (p. 290)
Because without a God, life can only exist by chemical accident, such a chemical accident will be exceedingly rare, and exceedingly rare things only commonly happen in vast universes where countless tries are made over vast spans of time. Likewise, a universe not designed for us will not look well suited to us but be almost entirely unsuited to us and we will survive only in a few tiny chance pockets of survivable space in it. Atheism thus predicts, with near 100% certainly, several bizarre features of the universe (it’s vast size and age and lethality to life), whereas we cannot deduce any of those features from any non-gerrymandered God hypothesis (while gerrymandered hypotheses all grossly violate Occam’s Razor).
(2) • What explains the fine tuning of the universe?
Another fallacy of loaded question. It is not established that the universe is finely tuned. Physicists Hawking, Krauss, and Vilenkin have all challenged the claim that it is. Victor Stenger summarizes a lot of the reasons why it probably is not in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning.
If we revise the question into something like “Why does this universe have fundamental constants that make life possible?,” then we are back to the cosmological cause issue above (which I answer in the same sources I link to there), combined with the weak anthropic principle: the probability that a conscious entity will observe itself in a fine-tuned universe if there is no god is 100%; but that probability is not 100% if there is a god, because a god could make a far more habitable universe (I demonstrate this point extensively in my chapter in The End of Christianity cited above, so read that before challenging it here). Thus the priors decide the odds, and there is no evidence to back a high prior for a god, but plenty to back one for godless causes. For example, quantum mechanics and the size and multiplicity of cosmic objects are all established facts in precisely a way that supernatural causes and entities are not, thus any theory appealing to the former has a far higher prior probability (having far greater support in background evidence).
This means some form of multiverse theory is intrinsically more likely. There are many planets in the solar system. Many solar systems in the galaxy. Many galaxies in the universe. And…that’s as far as we can see. By logical extension, the next structure to expect to find multiplied is a kind of thing we have established very definitely exists: a universe. We have no comparable basis for expecting there to be a god. There are other arguments for a multiverse besides (e.g. see Ex Nihilo Onus Merdea Fit), and arguments against it fail on basic logic. For example, the claim that a multiverse posits many entities when one will do is false, because, as the just-linked article proves, a multiverse is logically entailed in the absence of any god or power to decide what will or won’t exist; and also because all scientifically credible multiverse theories deduce the multiverse from a single, simple cosmological theory–for instance, chaotic inflation starts with a simple theory about a quantum vacuum and deduces an infinitely expanding multiverse from that premise as an inevitable consequence. A quantum vacuum, even with all its properties (most of which are confirmed scientific fact), is vastly simpler than any intelligent mind, much less a mind of divine complexity.
(3) • Why is the universe rational?
Fallacy of meaningless question.
If revised to mean “Why is the universe uniform/orderly?,” see my linked ten possibilities under the cosmological question above, as well as my answer in the referenced chapter there (in The End of Christianity, esp. pp. 298-302). Ditto the latter if we revise this question to mean “Why is the universe intelligible/understandable?,” which I also answer there (we evolved a brain capable of inventing tools to help us understand it). If we revise the question to mean “Why is the universe intelligent?” or “Why is the universe designed?,” then we end up with the fallacy of begging the question.
(4) • How did DNA and amino acids arise?
This is a question only scientists can answer. Theologians have certainly never answered it (beyond mere hand waving).
For DNA, many viable scientific theories are on the table, and they already work very well. As far as which is true, protobiologists are working on it (in the meantime, you can purge yourself of creationist lies about this science at TalkOrigins). Theists have no viable theory at all–as in, one that predicts the specific properties of early (protobiotic) life, i.e. a theory from which you can deduce the fact that RNA likely preceded the appearance of DNA, that some DNA codons evolved before others, and the chemistry of both RNA and DNA, and that there would be either, and that single-celled life would evolve for three billion years before becoming advanced enough to form multicelled life, and so on, all features that scientific theories of biogenesis effectively predict and explain but no theology ever has, or ever even so much as anticipated.
(On how modern theories of life’s origins make far more sense without a god hypothesis, that in fact the evidence pretty much refutes any god hypothesis by rendering it among the least probable theory imaginable, see my chapter on design arguments in The End of Christianity, esp. pp. 289-92 for biogenesis and pp. 284-89 for all subsequent evolution).
For amino acids, scientists have already answered this: they are created in stellar and planetary kitchens, confirmed by observing them in stellar clouds and meteorites, and confirming in the lab that they are inevitably produced by conditions in space as well as on prebiotic planets. No intelligence required. (See the Wikipedia entry on abiogenesis, esp. the section on extraterrestrial amino acids, and the entry on the Miller-Urey experiment, which has been multiply repeated and updated, including a recent experiment replicating the effect of spontaneous amino acid formation in deep space environments.)
(5) • Where did the genetic code come from?
Evolution. The most likely pathway was: the first self-replicating molecule was probably something like PNA (which does not require homochirality), which evolved into RNA, which then evolved into DNA. The code itself evolved, beginning much simpler than it is now and getting more developed over time (we have actual evidence of this). In the PNA world and possibly the early RNA world no genetic code existed at all; it was an adaptation that gradually developed in RNA, and passed on to DNA. See the summary on Cassandra’s Tears and a very smart video illustrating the process and the relevant facts on YouTube (posted by CDK007).
(6) • How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?
Another fallacy of loaded question. The existence of true irreducible complexity has not been established. Ever. Not once in any peer reviewed science journal.
If you revise the question into something like “How does apparent/present irreducible complexity evolve?,” then the answer is through intermediary pathways (such as scaffolding, exaptation and spandrels). TalkOrigins has this one well enough covered I shouldn’t even have to provide a link. But the video I linked in answer to the previous question above covers the molecular evolution story.
(7) • How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?
A combination of parallel development and proto-cultural (memetic/linguistic) evolution.
For example, some of those “116 families” are artificial languages (e.g. sign language is one family, and esperanto is part of another family called “constructed languages”) and polyglots (e.g. pidgins and creoles), languages that merge multiple families by cultural mixing of speakers. In both cases, we can fully account for their origin. And in both cases we have models for how the other families originated, as we also do in the observed evolution of languages within each family (e.g. how words and grammatical rules are invented and transformed over time). Some of those families, in fact, are likely evolved forms of earlier protolanguages that can’t be reconstructed on present evidence (and thus many families might actually be descendants of the same language). So the total of independently-originating language families that have extant descendants is certainly less than 116, and in any event most of these language families are tens of thousands of years old (lest Saunders be weirdly imagining that the Tower of Babel incident is supposed to have caused them).
One proposal (the details of which have been challenged, but not the underlying principle of there having been a deeper root language underlying many existing families) is the Ruhlen-Gell-Mann thesis. Co-evolution of several root languages is also likely. It is intrinsically mythical to assume language began when there were only two people (in the Garden of Eden), when in fact it would have begun when there were already thousands of isolated tribes, each developing its own communication systems simultaneously, most of which dying out and being replaced by more successful languages (as tribes died out and intermarried and traded and allied with each other) resulting in the growth of early language groups, which gave birth to the hundred or so extant language families. The dominant success of only six families over the other hundred is a direct reflection in the present of what will have occurred prior to the appearance of the proto-languages now reconstructed from extant families: most invented languages will have died out, and only a few stragglers hang on, in the form of their many descendants.
There is really no difficulty explaining how separate human (or even pre-human hominid) tribes would each gradually invent a language to communicate with. It’s just the same as independently developing similar but distinct and original art and tool use and manufacturing techniques, agriculture, metal forging, folk medicine, and so on. Interbreeding among tribes then passed on all useful innovations that facilitated language invention and use (those not getting it died out, those receiving these genes lived on in their more successful progeny).
(8) • Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?
Yet another fallacy of loaded question. They didn’t. Most regions’ first cities long post-date that period, and several long predate it. Thus the constricted range (of just 2,000 years) is bogus. Also, a slog lasting 2,000 years is not “suddenly.” That it was in fact a period of 6,000 years only makes that word’s use more absurd here.
If we revise the question to “Why did cities first appear on five of the seven continents within a five or six thousand year period?” (because the earliest cities in Mesoamerica and China, the last of these five continents to get cities, date c. 1,500 BC, while earliest cities in the Ancient Near East, the first known in the world, e.g. Ur, date near 7,500 BC, and that’s a 6,000 year difference), then the answer is that this is when the warmer Atlanticum phase of the latest interglacial period had begun (around 8,000 BC), making city-supporting agriculture possible. Consequently an inevitable co-evolved structure (the city) was independently invented in five continents over a 6,000 year period (the sixth to get cities, Australia, did not see one until Sydney was founded there by the Brits in 1788 AD; the seventh, Antarctica, has yet to get one, despite being twice as large as Australia).
Other than in Australia, all these earliest cities were inhabited sites for thousands of years before they became cities, and all gradually grew into cities over time. They did not spontaneously appear out of nowhere, nor suddenly transition from village to city overnight. The variance of thousands of years between when, for example, Mesopotamia and China saw their first cities, can even be explained by cultural diffusion (six thousand years is plenty of time for the idea to migrate along trade routes and nomad trails from one to the other), if we had need of that hypothesis. But we don’t. Because a city is just a natural economic and social evolution of any centralized community (like a village): just add resources and stir.
(9) • How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
Fallacy of loaded question again. It has not been established that there is any difference between independent thought and the interaction of chance and necessity.
If we revise the question to mean “How is intelligent thought possible if chance governs the universe?,” then the answer is that the universe is governed by an interaction between chance and necessity, not chance alone, and intelligence is a product of that interaction. If we revise the question to mean “How is intelligent thought possible if deterministic necessity governs the universe?,” then the answer is that intelligent thought requires deterministic necessity to exist. The only way you can reach a logically valid conclusion from a set of premises is if you always reach the same conclusion from those premises, which requires a deterministic system; chance then causes deviations from logical necessity, making intelligence less reliable than it would be otherwise. Which, of course, is exactly what we observe. From which we should conclude God sucks at inventing information processing systems.
(10) • How do we account for self-awareness?
This is another question only scientists can answer. Many theories are being explored. Theists, by contrast, have no viable theory at all–as in, a theory that predicts the peculiar features of conscious information processing, such as its dependence on an array of separate physical brain centers, its dependence on chemical balances, the presence of universal cognitive biases and illusions, the ladder of brain complexity development corresponding to level of consciousness and intelligence in animals, and so on. Cognitive scientists can predict all of these features from a common meta-theory: the brain generates self-awareness through chemical information-processing (e.g. mirror neurons, intentionality centers, and narrative memory construction, storage and retrieval, etc.). Theism has no comparable theory. And as for details not yet worked out, science is making steady and impressive progress. Theology has made none.
See my section on this point in Sense and Goodness without God III.6, pp. 135-208, and VI.2, pp. 353-60. The most notable point to reiterate here, is what I noted in the Carrier-Wanchick Debate (and reiterate again, with a more extensive bibliography and broader application, in The End of Christianity, pp. 298-302):
The scientific evidence confirming the necessity of a functioning human brain for human consciousness to exist is vast and secure. We have identified where in a brain different kinds of memories are stored, where emotions and reason operate, where each kind of sensory experience is processed, and so on. We have observed that if we physically remove or deactivate any one of these parts, the memories or abilities it contains then cease. It follows that if we take away all the parts, everything that we are will cease. [Atheism] predicts this must be the case, since on [atheism] there is no other way to have consciousness except as the product of a large, delicate and complex physical system (lying at the end of an extremely long, meandering, faulty process of trial and error over billions of years). But this is not what we’d expect if [theism] were true, since [theism] entails that consciousness can exist and function without a brain, and there is no known reason [any plausible] God would imbue us with any other kind of mind, and good reason to expect he wouldn’t. [Atheism] thus predicts exactly what we observe, while [theism] predicts the opposite: that we would instead be made “in God’s image,” which is not what we observe.
God could have provided every human being with a brainless mind that (a) always operates correctly without need of food or oxygen, (b) is incapable of being damaged by any wounds or disease, (c) always perceives and reasons correctly, [and] (d) doesn’t pose a physical threat to a mother’s life or health during delivery (as human brains do, in contrast with all other mammalian brains [due to disproportionate size, to accommodate their immense required complexity])…
Whereas, we can predict from the premise of atheism that our minds would lack all four of those things, that in fact the only way we could exist as conscious beings if there is no god nor anything supernatural is with a dangerously large, complex brain, which is highly vulnerable to injury, disorder and disease, massively dependent on consuming a huge chunk of our resources (in food and oxygen, e.g. our brains consume around 20% of our blood, sugar, and oxygen, a huge waste in resources relative to a soul, which requires no blood, food, or oxygen), with many innate gaps and flaws in its information processing capabilities.
That we have brains, and brains like these, therefore proves atheism is more probably true than any credible theism.
(11) • How is free will possible in a material universe?
Once again, a fallacy of loaded question. It has not been established that free will even exists. And whether it does depends on how it is defined.
If we revise the question to ask “How is libertarian free will possible in a material universe?,” then the answer is it isn’t, because such a thing doesn’t exist (and has certainly never been shown to exist). In fact it’s logically impossible. See my discussion of this point in Sense and Goodness without God III.4, pp. 97-118. If we revise the question to ask instead “How is compatibilist free will possible in a material universe?,” then the question answers itself (compatibilist free will is by definition compatible with a material universe).
(12) • How do we account for conscience?
Cognitive evolution. This is actually one area where the science of brain evolution has nearly sewn up the answer to how, why, when, and where in the brain our moral conscience developed. We in fact have at least three of those, which occupy different parts of the brain, one (the Right Temporoparietal Junction) that responds emotionally to an agent’s intentions rather than the consequences of their actions, and generates discomfort when we go against the expectations it generates in us, and another (the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex) that tracks consequence-based empathy for other people that also generates discomfort when we go against it, and a third (the Amygdala) which reinforces our feelings of distress when we harm others or violate our own principles.
Some people have one or the other of these brain centers damaged and they start employing moral reasoning that is different from their former selves (in accord with the element of their “conscience” that is lost with that brain center). Likewise, most moral dilemmas are a product of these brain centers coming to contradictory conclusions. There have been several excellent books about this lately, I hardly need bother naming any. But IMO the best is the three-volume set Moral Psychology edited by Sinnott-Armstrong. That’s somewhat more affordable than the otherwise excellent The Moral Brain: Essays on the Evolutionary and Neuroscientific Aspects of Morality.
For examples of recent good science on this there is an article in the March 29 (2010) issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which the brain center that evaluates intentions was numbed by magnets, altering the moral conscience of the subject accordingly. This expands on work summarized in “The Functional Brain Architecture of Human Morality” in Current Opinion in Neurobiology 19.6 (December 2009, pp. 678-81
Compare what we’ve achieved here by way of explanation, with what theology has. Then maybe you’ll realize why religion is a complete waste of our time.
(13) • On what basis can we make moral judgements?
On the basis of what sort of world we want to live in and what sort of person we want to be, which are in turn based on the consequences of either outcome (what sort of world we create and what sort of person we become) in respect to fulfilling all of our higher order goals (love, happiness, health, security). This is a logically necessary truth even on theism. See my chapter on this point, “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them)” in The End of Christianity (cited above), pp. 333-65. See also the Carrier-McKay Debate and follow up, and my article on Moral Ontology, for even more detail on the true nature of moral facts.
(14) • Why does suffering matter?
Hidden assumption: this question is meaningless unless rephrased as “Why does suffering matter to us?” The answer is because we, as social animals, evolved brains that care about that, and we, as conscious intelligences, can deduce that everything works out better for us if we care about that. These conclusions follow in multiple ways, which I discuss in the chapter cited for the previous question above; but in even greater detail in Sense and Goodness without God V, pp. 291-348.
(15) • Why do human beings matter?
Hidden assumption: this question is meaningless unless rephrased as “Why do human beings matter to us?” The answer is the same as above, which produces in turn the more obvious reason that we like their company and need their help. We also see in them ourselves, and the awe-inspiring potential that entails. Which brings us back to the sort of world we want to live in and what sort of person we want to be–in each case, the answer for any rationally informed person is: one that respects human consciousness and potential.
(16) • Why care about justice?
Asked and answered: we, as social animals, evolved brains that care about that, and we, as conscious intelligences, can deduce that everything works out better for us if we care about that.
(17) • How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?
Agency overdetection. Which is an evolved cognitive bias in human brains (an inevitable product of natural selection), which can only be overcome by installing a corrective “software patch” called logical reasoning and scientific method. Most humans have not run a good install of that software yet. Almost all of those who have, however, don’t believe in the supernatural.
In fact, the percentage of belief in the supernatural among any population runs in inverse proportion to the quality of their national or local educational system. And yet no education system on earth is devoted as effectively to teaching logical reasoning and scientific method as it could be, indeed those are not the primary goals of any educational system on earth, but a secondary byproduct of them at best. Most educational systems aim at rote memory of isolated facts, mechanical computation skills, and literacy, with general abstract reasoning a distant second, or merely a derivative goal, and the latter still does not entail competence in logic or scientific methodologies. But get loaded up well with those, and byebye belief in the supernatural.
Other cognitive biases contribute to the effect of erroneous belief in the supernatural, such as the assumption of disembodied causation, which results from our inability to see the causes (thus belief in a “life force,” and similar constructs like “humors,” which was a near universal, yet false, belief the world over for thousands of years: it was produced by our seeing effects with no evident cause, although now we know their causes to be reducible to chemistry and thermodynamics) and cognitive illusions (thus belief that the earth doesn’t move and is flat, also universal false beliefs the world over for thousands of years, was based on the illusion of relative motion of the sun and our brains’ visual resolution automatically flattening what is in fact a curved horizon).
This is all why increased scientific knowledge tracks an inverse proportional decline in supernatural belief.
(18) • How do we know the supernatural does not exist?
Science. If the supernatural existed, we’d have found some by now.
(19) • How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?
I assume this is meant to ask how we know there “isn’t” such an existence, since it is directed at atheists who don’t believe there is. Thus revised, the answer is that all evidence points to what I already noted for question 10 above: the brain is clearly necessary to generate consciousness–and store memories, personality traits, skills and reasoning abilities, process sensory information, etc., in other words everything that constitutes “you”–so dissolution of the brain entails dissolution of all these attributes. That puts the burden of evidence on anyone who would deny this.
By analogy, all evidence points to my wealth being a function of the money I can spend and the property I can use or sell. Take away my money and property and I will lose my wealth. If someone wants to insist that invisible houses and dollars and limbs remain in my possession, in some sort of magical parallel dimension, and therefore I still have all that wealth even after it is destroyed, the burden is on them to prove this preposterous claim.
See Victor Stenger’s take down of the typical lame attempts to do that in “Life After Death: Examining the Evidence” in The End of Christianity (pp. 305-332).
(20) • What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
Long since asked and answered. See my chapters “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable” in The Christian Delusion (pp. 291-315) and “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible” in The End of Christianity (pp. 53-74).