My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. All posts in the series are collected at the end of this post.
Quick recap: This is the chapter in which Wallace presents his evidence for the existence of his God. In the first part of my review of this chapter, I discussed at some length the problems with the lack of direct evidence for God and how this lack is actually strong evidence against the Biblical god. In the second part, I wrote some not-very-consequential stuff about Jeffries’ drawings, and Katie invented potato-worship. In this part, I hope to actually answer the points put forward. We can dream…
The rest of the chapter consists of Jeffries going over the evidence for God’s existence, which he divides into four categories:
- The need for a First Cause
- The moral argument.
Here are my thoughts on each of those (I don’t have much from Katie; she was still focused on potatoes).
1. First Cause argument
“First, we’re in a universe that began to exist, just like we talked about before. What made it begin? Whatever it is, it would have to be something outside of space, time, and matter. We know that God fits that description.”
This… is about as logical as saying “We need an explanation for crop circles. Whatever created them would have to be something with great technological abilities. We know that aliens fit that description, so this counts as evidence for the existence of aliens.”
You can’t demonstrate the existence of a hypothetical being by simply declaring that it could have been responsible for such-and-such. If you want to go down that road, you have to demonstrate that this being was either the only thing that could have caused such-and-such, or, at the very least, that it was significantly more probable than any other possible options. I’m going to add here that Wallace is a police officer; I assume he knows full well that you can’t prove someone committed a crime purely by saying that they could have done it, and still less can you solve an unsolved case simply by hypothesising the existence of someone who could potentially have done it.
Wallace may of course have meant to argue that there are no other possible causes for the universe. If that’s what he was getting at, however, it’s on him to show that this is the case.
“Next, scientists tell us that the universe is incredibly fine-tuned for the existence of life.[…]”
Whoa there, cowboy. For years I was reading apologetic books assuring me that one reason I should believe in God was the utter unlikelihood of life having developed on this planet without someone to create it, and now suddenly an apologist is trying to tell me that the universe is incredibly fine-tuned for life? Get your stories straight here, guys.
The fine-tuning argument, for anyone who hasn’t previously run across it, is based on the finding that various physical constants of the universe (gravitational force, electromagnetic force, strong atomic force, weak atomic force) all need to fall within a very narrow range in order for a) the universe to continue to exist at all, and b) stars and the different kinds of atoms to come into being. All these constants do in fact fall within the necessary ranges (as you can probably deduce from the fact of our existence), and apologists will often use the odds against this to argue that it’s incredibly unlikely that our universe could have come into being without being deliberately designed and created.
Various problems with this argument have been raised. The main one, from what I’ve read, is that a couple of other well-established theories in physics seem to point to the likelihood that our universe is actually part of a multiverse containing unlimited numbers of ‘pocket universes’ with infinitely varied physical laws. However big the odds against any one universe having a workable combination of physical constants, in a multiverse with infinite pockets there are going to be universes that hit the sweet spot.
(Some versions of the fine-tuning argument also include claims about the incredible improbability of finding the correct planetary conditions to support life. The flaw in this one is hopefully even more obvious; this universe contains colossally vast numbers of stars and planets, so it really isn’t that unlikely that at least one of that mind-boggling number of planets happens to have a combination of qualities suitable to allow the development of life.)
Scientists have no idea why this is the case,
That, as per the links I included above, is just flat-out false. Scientists do indeed have ideas as to why this is the case. They have an entire detailed theory – the multiverse, as briefly described above and described in more detail in the above link – as to why this is the case. You may of course disagree with the ideas/theories they have and want to argue against them in some way, but denying that those ideas and theories even exist is not accurate.
unless of course, the universe was designed for a purpose: to be the home for human beings like you and me.
The second part of that quote does not follow logically from the first half.
Let’s, for a moment, suppose that the fine-tuning argument was absolutely correct. Let’s suppose that the reason why our universe has physical constants that fall so precisely within the ranges they do was because it was deliberately designed this way by a god who wanted a universe that would last for billions of years and contain multiple different forms of atoms which would be able, eventually, to develop into solar systems. It… would also still be a universe in which it took hundreds of millennia to form the first atoms, nine billion years to form our planet, and over four billion years more to get to the point where humans developed.
A god who would deliberately design a universe in such a way is not a god who appears to be showing any particular interest in humans whatsoever. While it’s very natural that we want to think of ourselves as being the primary focus and concern of a divine being – his reason for having created the entire universe, no less! – this belief is not something that can be backed up by what we observe in the universe around us. Even if the fine-tuning argument is correct and this universe was designed for a purpose, it does not look as though this purpose has anything whatsoever to do with ‘human beings like you and me’.
Scientists also see signs of design in biology.
Er, no. Scientists see signs of evolution in biology. A small minority of scientists – usually those with pre-existing religious ideas regarding the existence of design – do believe there are signs of design there, but it’s very misleading to talk as though scientists as an overall group were looking at what they could see in biology and saying “Wow; signs of design there”.
Your body is incredibly designed
A flaw in one of the genes that code for Vitamin C, putting us at risk of scurvy when we don’t get enough Vitamin C in our diet and hence causing the suffering of countless people who could have easily synthesised the vitamin they needed if only that gene was working correctly.
A blind spot in our vision due to retinas that face the other way from what even basic common sense would suggest.
Incompatibilities in head and pelvis shapes that not only make childbirth horrendously painful for women, but have led to millions of babies and mothers over the centuries dying in childbirth or suffering severe lifelong injury.
The human body is indeed incredible. I’m a doctor; I’ve learned a great deal about just how incredible it is. But it also has important flaws that provide very good evidence that we were not designed by a loving God aiming to get everything just right for us.
and you even have information in your body called ‘DNA.’
THAT FULL STOP SHOULD BE OUTSIDE THOSE QUOTES. Ahem. Just saying.
(Edited to add: In fact, it seems Wallace is in the clear on this one; I hadn’t realised that the US and UK not only have different spelling, but different punctuation rules as well. Thanks, brucegee, for the heads-up.)
Anyway, Jeffries goes on to explain to them that DNA is ‘an instruction manual for your body’, and tells us:
It contains more information than all the books in your school library, and information is a sure sign of intelligence.
No, it isn’t. To take an example that Wallace will be familiar with from his own working life; sometimes police officers will get called out to a death that turns out, on inspection, to have been due to natural causes. In those situations, the police officers will collect information from things like what position the body is in when it’s found and whether there are any signs of injuries. The information they get from these signs wasn’t put there by an intelligent being; if it’s a death from natural causes, then things like the position of the body also happen due to natural causes. It’s still information.
(To pre-empt a possible objection; Yes, in this example it takes intelligence to decipher the information. There are other situations where that isn’t true; for example, one-celled creatures can respond to different food sources in their environment, so they’re clearly detecting some type of information from the food sources and processing it in some kind of automatic chemical reaction that can take place without intelligence being required. More importantly, however, this wasn’t Wallace’s analogy here. He isn’t trying to argue that your cells are intelligent because they can read and act on the information in your DNA; he’s trying to argue that only an intelligent source can put any information there in the first place.)
We get another of Wallace’s grey insert boxes, this one giving us an unusually narrow definition of the term ‘information’: ‘A series of symbols, objects, or letters that describe a specific idea or request’. None of the dictionary definitions I looked up included a requirement for information to be expressed as ‘a series of symbols, objects, or letters’ in order to meet the definition, so Wallace seems to have manufactured a definition that fits with the belief he wants to get across.
Back to the skateboard, this time so that Jeffries can show the cadets the words ‘Made in USA’ printed on the base of the board as an example of information that couldn’t have got there by chance. Of course that information couldn’t; it’s expressed in a specific human language using a code (the written word) worked out by humans. Wallace seems to think that the coded groups of nucleotides in DNA that specify particular amino acids in proteins are analogous to this, as though the cellular machinery that manufactures proteins had to learn and check code books in order to do so.
Needless to say, that’s not actually how it happens; in fact, transcription of the DNA code is mediated by complex molecules of what’s known as ‘transfer RNA’, each of which links to a specific group of three nucleotides at one end and a specific amino acid at the other, meaning that, as the tRNA molecules link on to the chain of nucleotides, the amino acids carried by each of them will line up in a specific order. (It’s more complicated than that, involving messenger RNA and ribosomes just for starters, but that’ll do for purposes of this post.)
Of course, apologists will often then argue that this system is so complicated it can’t possibly have come about just by evolution, even given millions of years to develop (alternatively, a subset of apologists known as young-earth creationists will try to argue that our planet has only been here for a few thousand years and thus this system can’t have had millions of years to develop, despite truly colossal amounts of evidence to the contrary). However, this argument runs into the usual two problems:
- If you want to use this as an argument for the existence of a divine creator, you first have to prove that there is simply no way at all that this could have happened through natural causes. In other words, not just handwaving and talking about how it’s all just too complicated, but coming up with every possible pathway that could have led to the development of this system through natural causes, demonstrating why every single one of them couldn’t work, and demonstrating that there is no possibility that there might be another pathway that we just haven’t thought of yet. So, good luck with that one, guys.
- Even if you were to manage to do that, coming up with proofs so watertight they could survive being poked and prodded by the minds of the collective world of biology and biochemistry, you would still run up against the problem I mentioned above; that all you would have done would be to prove the existence of some type of divine creator, not the particular type of divine creator with a deep interest in and love for humans.
4. The moral argument
At this point, it’s mentioned that ‘some [of the cadets] look like they are ready to head out for the day’. Yes, I’ll bet they are by now. Jeffries gestures to them to keep paying attention and brings up the example of stealing being wrong:
“[…]Where does that kind of moral truth come from? Is it just a matter of opinion? Does it come from the state where we live?”
He gets them to conclude that stealing wouldn’t be OK even if there weren’t a law against it, and then gives them what is known in the logic trade as a false dichotomy:
“All right then,” continues Jeffries, “the truth about stealing seems to come from something other than my personal opinion or the state where I work. It’s bigger than all of us. God is also bigger than all of us, so God is the better explanation for the source of truth about stealing.”
…and, if you take the trouble to think about it instead of opting straight for ‘God did it’, our ability to empathise with others is a still better explanation, which Jeffries is completely ignoring.
Katie had wound down somewhat by now on the subject of potatoes, so I asked her what she thought about this argument. She was exceedingly unimpressed with it.
“Well, it’s kind of obvious,” she told me. “What if you’d just bought something for £50? If someone else steals it, that’s like £50 that’s been given to someone without their permission.”
I asked her why she thought this would be a problem. “Because it’s just like you’ve worked hard for that and they’ve done nothing to get it. It’s not nice at all.” I pushed her a little further, curious as to whether she’d be able to put any form of the ‘we wouldn’t like it if someone did it to us’ argument into words. “Basically I’m not happy about it because that makes no sense. It’s not my personal opinion that it’s wrong to steal. You literally just agreed with it! Either I’m missing something or these people are idiots!”
Jeffries, meanwhile, has finished his argument and his diagram and sums up, assuring the cadets that
as long as you put only the most minimal effort possible into searching for other options clearly ‘God is the best explanation for all this evidence’.
“And science is the best explanation for all this other evidence,” Katie told me. “And the best explanation for all this evidence which makes sense for it is THE POTATO. BOW DOWN BEFORE THE POTATO! HE IS THE LORD AND SAVIOUR OF THIS WOOOORRRRRLLLLLLD!”
The chapter ends, we’re told, with the cadets looking around at one another and considering what Jeffries has just said. (“Did they think it was silly?” Katie asked me. I like to think that they were wondering when the hell they’d get to the bit of the course where they got to learn about fingerprinting.)
And that, dear readers, is not only the end of this chapter and of this probably excessively long blog post, but also of the bit Katie and I read together last October when we started this! Whoopee! We have finally caught up! It is no doubt a sad comment on my life to admit that I’m excited about moving on to the next chapter after all this time. I’ve been a lot more in my stride with blogging these past few months, so I’m hoping that getting through subsequent chapters won’t take nearly as long (for what that’s worth). We’ve already read the first part of the next chapter last night and I’ll start writing it up as soon as I can.
Technically, a group of guys with boards is “something” with great technological abilities. That is, humans can have design skills, and the ability to use drafting to create scale models, and the language skills necessary to co-ordinate board-stepping/crop-flattening activities, and probably the technology to do surveying so that the board-stepping/crop-flattening all occur according to the design at the correct scale, and so on.
It’s less “sexy” than “aliens did it!”, but then again, “there’s actually another way in or out” (or other natural explanation) is less sexy than “someone can walk through walls!” with regards to a locked room mystery.
This might be one of those cases where a word in a weak sense is used to be understood in the strong sense. That is, some scientists might use the word “design” to mean (weakly) “designed by the process of evolution”, and others might take that usage to mean (strongly) “designed by an intelligent agent”.
Another example of such conceptual tension is in the use of “purpose” in biology, and using terms that imply purpose. See, for example, teleonomy.
Urgle. That logic was so bad it was painful. If this is the way cops think, our police system is worse than I thought, and I already had a pretty low opinion of it. I don’t really believe this is how he approached police work, I fully expect that he’s just using that as his hook to get into the world of Evangelical ministry, but still… it’s scary to think that he had the authority of a badge at one point.
1: The uncaused cause argument is one of the creationist arguments I hate the most. The universe had to have a beginning, they say. Why? Because they say so. It had to have a cause outside of itself. Why? Because they say so. God is outside of it. Why? Because they say so. Zero evidence for any of this, just a mountain of assertions.
I know what you’re saying. Cosmologists say the universe had a beginning. I’m not certain that’s entirely true, though, they say that there’s a point beyond which they lack the ability to make observations or draw inferences from what we can observe. This is an area of science I largely stay away from, to go beyond that point you pretty much have to speak in terms of math that I will never have, but I understand that there are some ideas of what might have come before that that don’t require a supernatural entity. Wallace would no doubt reject those ideas, but it’s convenient that he accepts the big bang in order to get a beginning of the universe in the first place. I’m not sure how much he really accepts it, I’ve been trying to figure out if he’s a young or old Earth creationist and can’t get much of an answer. My guess is he only accepts as much of it as he thinks is useful to him.
2: Honestly, I’m going to ignore fine tuning. It doesn’t interest me because it involves physics concepts that are too far beyond my knowledge, but which have been dealt with by people for whom it is not.
3: Oh man, information, we’re partying like it’s 2005 and Intelligent Design is still in vogue. I followed this a lot back when it ID advocates were still trying to make their case, I still don’t grok the math but I can follow along adequately for the purposes of this. The deal is that information as a scientific concept, as he’s using it, is really more of a mathematic concept. It has to be defined, and there are multiple definitions. It isn’t a physical property, like temperature, even though there are different units that can be used to measure temperature, if you know how to convert between them they all should agree with each other. With information your definition can change your results. Some definitions of information allow random number generators to generate new information, in fact they can be the most dense source of information. And natural processes are the best source of random numbers. Website security company Cloudflare needed a source of random numbers for their encryption keys, and they got it from a wall of lava lamps and a camera pointed at it. It sounds to me that the lava lamps are almost but not quite a gimmick, and the truth is that the noise in the camera signal also is a source of randomness, but still it’s a rather colorful illustration of the concept.
So yes, natural processes are known to be able to produce new information, it absolutely does not require intelligence. To say “DNA has information in it” is to say something that sounds profound but means very little. Depending upon what you’re looking for, the noise you hear on your car stereo in between stations might be information. The cosmic background radiation was thought to be noise until it became of interest to scientists, then it became signal, than it became information.
4: Ugh. This is one of those arguments that’s so wrong I don’t really know where to start. The argument appears to be “because it’s universal, it must have been given to us by my specific supernatural entity”. But there’s no logic there. I think even that breaks down if you look at it too closely, though. I’m guessing we are supposed to perceive this universal capital t Truth because we have souls, right? God made us in his image, so we understand this. So why do so many animals understand fairness? I don’t have any links handy, but I’ve been seeing a steady stream of stories about this lately. Various animals, not even just great apes, understand fairness something like how we do.
One last thing, jumping back to the DNA thing, the example of the skateboard with “Made in the USA” printed on it is really not the lesson he wants to teach. It’s not analogous to what he’s trying to do at all. The problem is we already know of an entity that makes skateboards and prints that message on them. We know companies that do it. What he is doing is trying to say that we know nothing that can achieve the phenomenon which he is describing, therefore this thing that he claims exists but which we cannot detect, measure, or test in any way is responsible.
I’m betting that even a cursory search on Youtube would bring up several “how it’s made” videos about skateboards that show how it’s done. We don’t simply say that a skateboard had to have a maker, therefore there is one. We know of the existence of skateboard makers. And I don’t mean in the sense that we have a book that says they exist.
It’s not even just that, though. Chance plus selection (which is what he should have been talking about if he was trying to make an analogy to evolution, creationists love to leave out one or the other and argue against half of the pair) could have put that message there. A genetic algorithm, a computer program written to mimic biological evolution in order to solve problems, could arrive at “Made in the USA” using a combination of random mutation and selection. Genetic algorithms can come up with working, complex systems that humans have to reverse engineer to figure out. That’s how much this process can produce something that looks designed without requiring any intelligent designer.
Sure, it’s probably more reasonable to assume that a person put it there (or rather configured the manufacturing equipment to put it there), seeing how this is a thing we know people do and that there would be little motivation to allow it to be handled by evolutionary processes. But you don’t get to generalize from that and say “therefore I say that this DNA had a maker too, even though we’ve never seen him do it and even though I have to resort to some pretty tenuous arguments to even show that he exists at all, and even though we know other processes that could have lead to its current state that don’t require any divine intervention”.
Are you from the UK, by any chance? Because we do things differently in these here US of A. FYI.
Dr Sarah says
Good point. And, on a more complex level, a quantum vacuum, or parent universe, or whatever, is ‘something outside space, time and matter’, but that doesn’t make it God.
“X could have done this, therefore X did do it, therefore X exists” is a very poor logical argument. I mean, I get that he’s having to simplify these arguments for children, but they are just ending up so disastrously bad.
Dr Sarah says
Or ‘theory’, which creationists have been merrily misunderstanding for… over a century now, I guess.
Dr Sarah says
Cognitive dissonance is a funny thing, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out that Wallace genuinely is good at his job despite his execrable logic here. (By the way, I think at least some of the problem is because he’s butchering the arguments in the process of trying to simplify them to child level; I mean, in a lot of cases I can see that he’s getting at a potentially better although still flawed argument, and is just expressing it really badly. I haven’t read the book he’s aimed at adults, though, so I don’t know.) Hell, I hope he’s a lot better at his job than he is at skepticism, or there are potentially a lot of innocent people getting locked up because Wallace has leaped to the wrong conclusion.
Tangentially, one thing he did do that concerns me is that, in response to the uproar about police shooting of unarmed black people, he wrote a long, massively whitesplainy article about how the police are such great guys really, and giving all these reasons why he doesn’t think there’s a racism problem… Sadly, I didn’t have enough time or knowledge to take on the job of rebutting it adequately, but I wish now I’d passed it on to other FTB-ers, as I’m sure someone would have done an awesome and much-needed job of taking it apart.
Dr Sarah says
I am! And I didn’t know that! I’ll update the post. Thanks for telling me! Wallace may be pretty bad at apologetics, but at least he’s in the clear on punctuation. 🙂