Where I Cram My Ideas

Saturday, January 19, 2008

John Loftus - Rejecting Christianity

"The Christian faith should be rejected by modern civilized scientifically literate people."

I'm not too familiar with John Loftus' writings. However, the above claim is one he advances at his blog, and I must disagree on several grounds.

If he wants to debate me on the matter, I don't think it would be a waste of time - although there may be more important matters for people to spend time debating.

How I interpret the statement

Loftus seems to be saying that all shades of Christian faith (where it differs from other beliefs) should be rejected. This is the problem. The Christian faith is very broad.

Some branches are quite modern.

Some branches are quite civilized.

Some branches are quite scientifically literate.

Loftus would make a better argument if he argued for rejecting the elements of the Christian faith that are different. He could argue for rejecting the aspects of Christianity that are ancient, uncivilized and incompatible with science.

The nature of "should"

My key disagreement with Loftus' statement regards his choice of the word "should." Since he has this phrase highlighted in red text in a permanent "challenge" section on his blog, I assume he did a lot of thinking when he chose his words. As I see it, there are two possible meanings.

First, there is a *practical* use of the word. If you want to win a game of chess, you *should* try to put your opponent's king in checkmate.

Second, there is a *moral* use of the word. If people want to be modern, civilized and scientifically literate (all "good" things), they should reject the Christian faith.

In a practical sense, Loftus would have to (and would inevitably fail, I believe) to establish that those aspiring to be modern, civilized and scientifically literate - in order to do so - must reject the Christian faith. This is evidently incorrect.

It should be noted - there are elements, some specific to the Christian faith, that should definitely be rejected by modern, civilized, scientifically literate people. Just not all.

We are left with the moral element. Loftus may be claiming that modern, civilized, scientifically literate people have a moral obligation to abandon Christianity. For simple reasons, I disagree. If people are modern, civilized and scientifically literate - and Christian - what moral reason is there for such people to reject their Christian faith? It clearly is not obstructing them. Such a claim would also imply that adherence to the Christian faith (and thus, all Christians) are either incapable of being modern, civilized and scientifically literate, or are severely lacking in those areas. This amounts to bigotry and is not to be tolerated.


Doubtless, Loftus wrote his challenge to instigate discussion with Christians. His view is probably shared by many people who have not considered the actual implications of that sort of claim. My post is simply to express my disagreement with his argument, pending clarification.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More about science/atheism

This is a response to Rhology's comments here.

After Rhology's most recent post, I realized there are some very big elephants in the room. They should be brought to the forefront of my attention on this blog. Our conversation meandered a lot, so I will try to separate piles of topics.

Science and God:

At the outset, Rhology and I agreed that science - being a study of physical laws and theories explaining physical phenomena - cannot really talk about "God." Then Rhology complained that science "oversteps its bounds" in assuming that naturalistic explanations can account for everything. The theory of evolution is described as ad hoc and "desperate."

If science just concerns itself with physical phenomena, then seeking any explanations other than naturalistic ones would be overstepping boundaries. If even the possibility of a naturalistic explanation exists for phenomena, science should be expected to seek it - even to assume it exists.

Consider an example of a murder investigation. A theist might approach a particularly puzzling case and trumpet the folly of "assuming" a naturalistic explanation exists. His supernatural alternative - whatever it may be - can be made to seem much more simple and probable. There is a problem here, and I'll deal with it later when I discuss Occam's Razor.


I made the claim that "In a broad range of possible early-earth conditions, amino acids have been observed to form in repeatable laboratory experiments."

As Rhology expected, I was referring to the original Miller-Urey experiments, and the subsequent research they spawned. He will find many answers to abiogenesis-related questions and criticisms that stem from the massive Creationism propaganda machines here.

His apparent skepticism toward the experiments may be answered (pardon the assumption) with this sort of response:

" Since his first experiment, Miller and others have experimented with other atmospheric compositions, too (Chang et al. 1983; Miller 1987; Schlesinger and Miller 1983; Stribling and Miller 1987). Complex organic molecules form under a wide range of prebiotic conditions."

There was a much more recent study that solved some previous problems. I wish I had bookmarked the abstract I read... if I come across it, I'll link it here.

I'll address another quip from Rhology's before I move on: "Whooptie do - intelligently-designed amino acids! This is an advertisement for ID, not for TOE."

The single biggest problem for "intelligent design," I would argue, is its vagueness. Pink elephants floating to our planet bearing the necessary building blocks for life would imply intelligent design as strongly any other story would. A hypothesis that is supported by every potential evidence does not help us narrow down what the real explanation might be.

Occam's Razor:

Here's a more technical readup. Rhology asserted in his comment that "One cause - God - is far simpler than the quadrillions of causes required for naturalistic abiogenesis."

I disagree. Consider two theories of planet movement: Rhology proposes that God moves the planets (after all, what possible force is strong enough to push such huge entities around?). I side with Isaac Newton. Technically, in regards to causes, Rhology has an advantage. What about all the little causes that put the planets in their orbits, determined their weight, shape, velocity, orbital plane, etc? One cause - God - is far simpler, right?

The problem with proposing the supernatural is that it is separate from the natural. In order to propose the existence of a being like God/gods, one must propose an entirely separate plane of reality - one which cannot be tested or observed. Alternatively, one could stick with a (complicated) theory that does not propose new planes of reality. Such a theory would, it turns out, be simpler. We are not faced with motives... "Why does God push the planets around?" A naturalistic theory (like gravity) eliminates all such questions.

I think I covered the important parts of Rhology's Occam's Razor points. He may feel free to ask follow-up questions as he feels inclined.

Trusting science:

There is a difference, I believe, between well-placed trust and blind faith. One has faith in a stranger's motives. I trust my mom and dad. I noted that, in the past, supernatural explanations have always given way to natural explanations. Rhology seems to think this is childlike faith. It strikes me as a solid foundation.

In the past, murder mysteries have had natural explanations. While it is not impossible that this case is supernatural, we are still obligated - if we follow a scientific profession - to exhaust our possible natural answers before we defer to the supernatural.

Furthermore, we must have good reason to believe that a natural explanation will never possibly be found. Otherwise we would be jumping the gun and making a hasty conclusion.

In Rhology's words, my belief that a natural explanation exists for abiogenesis - despite the theory's currently incomplete state - is similar to my "saying that, someday, alchemy will be shown to be valid."

Alchemy has been shown to be not-valid. We currently lack the information to allow us to confirm or dismiss naturalistic abiogenesis theories, though. So, the analogy fails there (too quickly to be a good analogy). Life arising from non-life is not a case of values turning "into their opposites," as Rhology claimed in his comment. Life varies in complexity and is, at times, difficult to define - as with viruses. A connect-the-dots puzzle begins to form if a link is hypothesized from amino acids to RNA to DNA etc. The mechanisms in question to make these transitions require further study.

Back to the nature of science:

Rhology tripped over himself later in his comment, I think. Near the beginning, he agreed with me that science concerns physical laws and theories explaining physical phenomena. Then, he argued that science is not justified in ruling out the supernatural. This apparent reversal might be a misunderstanding on my part, however...

When I say "I will seek a natural explanation for this murder," I have taken a metaphysical stance. I will rule out supernatural explanations. Science, definitively, seeks natural explanations. It is not equipped to study supernatural explanations.

If science DOES study the supernatural - well, Rhology had better alert the greater scientific community. I hope he alerts me first so I do not feel left out.

Rhology went on to write, "Lab science is also unqualified to make judgments on things that happened in the past, but that fact hasn't stopped it from doing so."

Direct your attention, please, to the Talk Origins response to this (apparently typical) claim.

Rhology complained that science "says" it can tackle questions of the supernatural - he seems to want science to cease making claims about the improbability of God. If he can produce any examples of papers or studies that made it past a respected peer review - any such paper or study that makes any attempt to tackle questions of the supernatural - then I will have an answer for him. If he cannot produce such a paper or study, then he already has my answer.

Evolution and mutation:

I wrote, "The emergence of new species is not microevolution, Rho. "

In his comment, Rhology responded with "Yes it is, sorry." I would like to bring to bear a trustworthy source here:

"Microevolution is defined as the change of allele frequencies (that is, genetic variation due to processes such as selection, mutation, genetic drift, or even migration) within a population. Macroevolution is defined as evolutionary change at the species level or higher, that is, the formation of new species, new genera, and so forth. Speciation has also been observed.

The bold emphasis is added. Rhology seeks evidence that "lizards turned into birds." He should note that (to the best of my knowledge) no actual scientist has ever proposed such a transition. A more commonly accepted theory is that dinosaur-like animals evolved into birds.

I pointed out that the process of microevolution is an accumulatory process. No mechanism exists to halt or reverse the changes that occur due to mutations from generation to generation. Until such a mechanism is proposed, we must believe the changes accumulate over time and result in new species. This has been observed.

Over time, a creature as distinct as a dinosaur could become less and less dinosaur-like and more and more bird-like.

Rhology DID propose a mechanism to halt that process of change. As he put it, the change from "lizard" to bird is impossible because of "the fact that they're LIZARDS." He went on to label the theory of microevolutionary processes extrapolated to a longer timeline as a "fairy tale" that anyone could "just dream up."

Oops, I forgot Rhology applied a little intelligent thought to the question of stopping/reversing microevolutionary changes. His primary suggestion was not bad: "That 'beneficial' mutations are highly rare; most mutations screw up organisms."

Not bad at all. However, harmful mutations do not act to halt OR reverse the mutations that do benefit the organism. Imagine, for example, a population of mice isolated in the arctic circle. Mutations occur each generation. Most mutations are neutral; some are harmful. The harmful mutations kill off those with the mutations.

So far we have a population that has not changed.

Finally, one beneficial mutation occurs. In that environment, this mutation is useful (thicker hair, say).

Thicker-haired mice soon become more common and 25 generations down the line, most of the mice have thicker hair. All the while harmful mutations are happening - and killing off the individuals with the harmful mutations - but then another beneficial mutation happens.

And so on. These beneficial mutations accumulate over time. There is no mechanism that has been proposed to stop or reverse these changes; so given enough time, we will start to see "mice" that only vaguely resemble the original population. When these arctic mice cannot naturally breed with their forebears, we have a new species. New species eventually become new families; "lizards" become birds.

Rhology then wrote to question a premise he thinks exists in evolutionary theory: "the premise that more information can be added out of nowhere."

I wish I knew what exactly he was referring to, because this is such a big issue. It is so big that Rhology cited it as one reason he is not an atheist anymore. I have a feeling that in this - as in so many other matters - he is misinformed. Please give me a more concrete example, Rho. Do you mean new genetic functions, new complexity (like amino acids being created from chemicals and lightning) or what?

Young Earth Creationism (briefly):

The thought of this topic makes me want a drink to wash away the bad taste that immediately comes to my mouth. But enough of that - I am not in the mood to argue against the bullshit of Creation "science." I will tell you this: the majority of educated Christians consider it hogwash more fervently than you think the same for the theory of evolution.

I refer to what I just wrote about intelligent design when I claim a hypothesis that accounts for anything (like YEC) is a very poor hypothesis. All evidences can be made to support it, and since none can be falsified, we come no closer to learning what the real explanation is.

Rhology disagrees that this is a weakness, apparently.

He also disagrees that an argument in this form is valid:

1. As we delve deeper into the fossil record, the fossils we find are less and less complex.
2. Therefore, as time progressed further, the animals represented by the fossils went from less to more complex. (Please note - This trend is generally true, although since less-complex and more-complex organisms have always existed at the same time, it is not an absolute truth that less complex fossils preceed more complex ones. Similarly, many species have led long lives. Thus, we find fossils of successful organisms extending deep back into the fossil record).

This is, as Rhology wrote, an unimpressive assumption.

Forensic science and lab science:

Forensic science involves gathering and documenting facts, testing evidences in laboratory settings, and formulating naturalistic theories about what happened in the past. For some elucidation, my post Forensics and Evolutionary Theory may equip you with a more thorough understanding of how these are related.

Theories about evolutionary ancestry and abiogenesis work exactly the same way. Without resorting to *mere* speculation, scientists can gather and document facts, test evidences in laboratory settings, and formulate naturalistic theories about what happened in the past. Forensic science, like evolutionary science and abiogenesis, is indeed repeatable, even if history is not.

Fossils have stories to tell, as I would have Rhology believe. His stance in the comment I'm responding to suggests he thinks of fossils as mere dusty bones. However, fossils have growth rings. We can know how old the individual was. We can know if a dinosaur got in a fight and broke or fractured a bone. We can learn how it healed - or didn't - we can learn how long a body was exposed before being buried (by the marks scavengers left behind), we can learn about its environment (based on how it was buried), we can learn about where it lived (based on whereabouts we find it). We can know how long its kind lived (based on which parts of the fossil record the bones occur in).

Whatever the weaknesses of cladistics may be - we can tell how closely a fossil is related to other ancient species (or living ones) based on similarities. These are the same similarities and differences we use to classify animals today. These things are screamingly obvious to anybody who was once a boy with paleontology aspirations - but apparently not to Rho. If there is anything unclear about why fossil bones are not blank and unresponsive; but rather filled with useful information, tell me.

Closing comment:

I must admit I am a little confused by Rhology's final words to me in his comment: He said he felt overwhelmed "Only by your faith. I'll say this - you make me a little embarrassed that I don't believe as fervently in my religion as you do in yours!"

Often, Rhology and I differ in our definitions. At references to my personal "faith" and/or "religion," my response leans toward a burst of laughter. Still, I should let him clarify. Religion is, to me (and to dictionary.com) "a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects... usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

I cling to no such thing. I look forward to Rhology's response.