Sunday, December 27, 2009

Life: Complex and Clumsy

Many proponents of intelligent design (ID) claim that life is too complex to be the result of natural processes, and therefore must’ve been designed. To this argument I have the following responses:

1) Even if the complexity of life were unexplainable by evolution, it wouldn't give evidence of design.
2) Complexity is not the same as design. There are simple things that are designed and complex things that arise naturally (cave formations, weather patterns).
3) In known designs, innovations that occur in one product quickly get incorporated into others, but in eukaryotic life, innovations stay confined to one lineage.
4) In design, form follows function. Yet life shows examples of different forms with the same function (differing wings of birds, bats, insects, and pterodactyls), as well as similar basic forms with different function (same bone patterns in human hand, whale flipper, dog paw, and bat wing). This shows that life lacks a plan; there are no optimal specifications for living processes and structures.
5) Life is indeed complex, but doesn’t design aim for simplicity?
6) In almost all designs, the manufacturing process is separate from the design itself. Living things replicate themselves.
7) Life is wasteful. Many organisms do not get to reproduce, and most fertilized eggs die before growing much. Good design would minimize this waste.
8) Life itself shows poor design. There are parts that were jury-rigged out of other parts that were used for another purpose. The result is a form that is functional but is not optimal (many organisms have parts that are not even functional!). This is what we would expect from evolution, not from intelligent design.
9) Evolution itself can be considered a design process, and the complexity and arrangement we see in life is much closer to what we would expect from an evolutionary, accumulative design process than a purposeful, intelligent designer.
10) Some systems, like a cell or the human body, are irreducibly complex, meaning that if you remove one certain part, the whole system fails. But contrary to creationist argument, irreducible complexity shows a lack of design. For the designer’s purpose of keeping the creature alive, you would not want systems that would fail if any one part fails. You would want a robust system.
11) If complexity in life indicates a designer, then what about non-living things? Rocks and lava aren’t complex. Neither are solar systems and galaxies. These things are simply collections of matter mindlessly following natural laws. If complexity and purposefulness truly indicate a designer, does simplicity and purposelessness indicate no designer?
12) There are several evolutionary mechanisms that can result in irreducible complexity: deletion of parts, addition of multiple parts (sometimes accidental replication of entire systems), change in function, and gradual modification of parts. These observed mechanisms make irreducible complexity completely plausible.

Claiming intelligent design of the universe based off of life’s complexity and functionality has no ground to stand on. Combine that with the complete lack of evidence, predictions, and scientific research that ID has generated, it is safe to say that ID is a belief based on religious theology, not on evidence.

- Evan

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

You don't know there's not a God

This response almost always occurs after someone says there’s no evidence of God. The fact is that no one is ever called upon to prove a negative, because it’s logically impossible. That’s right, it’s impossible to prove there’s no God. But don’t get excited yet. It’s logically impossible to prove the non-existence of any number of things. Think of anything we can’t directly observe. It’s logically impossible to prove that that thing doesn’t exist. This leaves the argument “you don’t know there’s not a God” on very shaky ground, since the same statement can be made for many different things, even things that contradict one another.

Let’s examine a claim that we can neither prove nor disprove: I am an alien in human form. If I told you this, you would not actually believe it no matter how hard I insisted it was true. My word would never be enough. You would require some sort of positive evidence for such an extraordinary claim. Needless to say, you wouldn’t be agnostic about it. You wouldn’t say “I neither believe nor disbelieve that you are an alien from another planet.” You would simply dismiss my claim as unverifiable, thinking I was pulling your leg, unless I came forth with very strong evidence (like building a homemade death ray).

“You don’t know there’s not a God.” This appeal to ignorance is very common, suggesting that the atheist should at least be agnostic about God. Surely if they were consistent, they would become agnostic themselves? But we don’t have to be agnostic. One of the best indicators that something isn’t there is a lack of evidence for its existence. Religion has never made any discoveries or predictions about the world, so it must have nothing to contribute as to its true nature.

- Evan

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


It’s one thing to say that Jesus lived, walked the Earth, had teachings to share with people, and got crucified by the Romans. It is an entirely different thing to say that he turned water into wine, healed the blind, was born of a virgin, and was raised from the dead. Historical claims are completely different from supernatural claims.

The world we live in is all we know. When someone says that Jesus was born from an immaculate conception, all we have to do is look at all the births that have ever happened, and see what percentage of them were immaculate. It turns out that that percentage is zero. If someone claimed immaculate conception today in whatever circle, they would not be taken seriously. How could one even prove that a conception was immaculate (unless we had a microscope focused on the egg in her body and saw it spontaneously gestate without sperm)? In order to believe such a thing, you have to not require any evidence. Christians take pride in having faith, but I don’t think there’s anything good about it. Not requiring evidence for your beliefs leaves you much more open to accepting false ones. For example, if the Guiness Book of World Records accepted every claim without independently verifiable evidence, the book’s credibility would plummet, and no one would read it. The literal truth of the miracles of the Bible works in the exact same way.

Even miracles that multiple people claim to have seen are still without strong evidence. Many people have claimed to see Bigfoot, the Lochness monster, leprechauns, and other things that sensible people don’t believe in. No one takes these claims seriously because we realize that personal testimony is the lowest form of evidence. Why should the claims of the Bible receive different treatment?

- Evan

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Egocentric Us: the denial of science

Because human experience is the the only thing we know, most religions often place humanity as the reason for all existence. This idea manifests itself in monotheistic theology. We are claimed to be God’s ultimate creation, and are at the focal point of the universe. If this isn’t true, then how do we explain the church’s tendency to deny scientific discoveries that take away this self-proclaimed importance? Such discoveries as heliocentrism (sun-centered instead of earth-centered solar system), elliptical planetary orbits (instead of perfect circles), sunspots on the sun (instead of a flawless, life-giving orb), the age of the universe and of the Earth, the big bang, and evolution have all been met with fierce and passionate opposition by the church and their followers. Notice that like evolution, heliocentrism at its time was thought to be an idea that made humans seem worthless. But today it is an accepted fact, one that doesn’t detract from how great humanity is. Why can’t evolution and the big bang be the same?

When looking at the universe, there is nothing that suggests that it was all made for us to live in. We are literally a speck on a speck on a speck, and there are vast forces and immense objects out there that push our world to the sideline. Even the events on our planet are enough to make the same point. The forces of nature that are out of our control (earthquakes, weather, melting polar ice) don’t care whether we live our die (unless you believe that God is the one that intentionally kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people per year with natural disasters).

The randomness of genes is another example of how the universe wasn’t made for us.
Uncontrollable birth defects produce disturbingly deformed newborns (Google-image it if you dare). This is easily explained by the randomness of genetics, but very difficult to explain with a god that personally creates and shapes each living thing. Some humans are born with debilitating or painful genetic defects that make life much more difficult to bear. The idea that the people affected by these unfortunate circumstances are being taught a lesson by God is a poor excuse for the pain and suffering that they go through. What specific lesson would they be learning that someone without these horrible experiences couldn’t also learn? The randomness and naturalism of the universe is much more accommodating to what we see than a planned universe that was built for us to live in.

Today’s population believes in both heliocentrism and the worth and meaningfulness of human life. Because of the underlying theme of their theology, the church believed that heliocentrism made humanity seem worthless; they believed it kicked humans off to the side. I think the same thing is happening today with naturalism. Just like heliocentrism, naturalism doesn’t detract from the specialness of humanity and human experience, it’s just a belief that reflects reality more accurately.

- Evan

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Some mind-blowing astronomical facts!

1) A neutron star is a leftover core from a dead star, composed almost entirely of neutrons. They have masses up to twice that of our sun, but can be about 15 miles in diameter (1/60,000 of our sun). Their density is equivalent to compressing the entire human race into a sugar cube.

2) In the presence of two colliding black holes, spacetime is incredibly stretched and contorted. There exists a specific looping path that you can take around the two objects that puts you in the past of where you began.

3) All the elements in the universe heavier than helium and up to iron were created in the fusion process in the cores of high-mass stars. All the elements heavier than iron were formed upon the ultra-powerful supernova deaths of these stars. These stellar explosions threw the star’s enriched guts across the universe to make the next generation of solar systems like ours. The very atoms that make up your body were created in the cores of stars. As Carl Sagan once said, “we are stardust.”

4) When solar flares are released from our sun, they not only shoot outwards but also snap back, like a breaking rubber band. Sometimes a super-powerful flare’s recoil can cause a phenomenon called a sunquake. The energy of the recoil is equivalent to covering the entire landmass of the Earth with dynamite a yard thick, and setting it off all at once. Circular ripples form on the sun’s surface move outward from the point of impact, like a pebble in a pond. Except that these "ripples" are two miles high, and travel at 250,000 miles per hour.

5) A pulsar is a highly magnetized, spinning neutron star that emits light beams caused by electromagnetic radiation from its two poles. When the poles point towards Earth, we see a pulsating effect, similar to how a lighthouse works. Because their high mass gives them so much momentum, the regularity of pulsation is as precise as an atomic clock. The fastest spinning pulsar ever discovered rotates at 600 times per second, its surface moving at about 18,641 miles per second (10% the speed of light).

6) Quasars are compact regions in the centers of massive galaxies surrounding their supermassive black holes. The energy of material falling into the black hole emits directionalized beams out of its poles. Quasars are ten trillion times brighter than our sun. If you were to count to just one trillion at one number per second, it would take you 31,546 years.

7) Magnetars are neutron stars with magnetic fields so immensely strong that they can kill a person from 600 miles away by warping the atoms of their flesh. Their magnetic fields are one quadrillion (a million billion) times that of Earth’s. On December 27, 2004, a magnetar produced the brightest event from outside our solar system in the history of astronomy. More on this event here.

- Evan

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Life After Death

One thing in common with all atheists is disbelief in the supernatural. This disbelief stems from the fact that strong evidence (multiple objective observations of repeatable events) points to naturalism while weak evidence (personal testimony of a single event) points to supernatural explanations. Life after death and the existence of an immaterial soul (two similar claims) are supernatural claims that exhibit such weak evidence.

The main reason for dismissing the idea of life after death is that all the evidence about human beings points to our being biological animals rather than embodied spiritual souls. Consciousness is still somewhat of a mystery to us, but we do know that it relies on brain activity. With no brain, there is no consciousness.

All the experiences, sensations, and emotions we have are dependent on the activity of certain parts of the brain, and when one of those parts is damaged, its respective aspect of experience is altered or hindered for the individual. And if you stimulate certain areas of the brain, you get an involuntary change of experience (if you stimulate the part of the brain that controls humor, everything becomes funny). In fact, damage to certain parts of the brain has been seen countless times to completely change someone’s personality forever. And when someone’s brain stops functioning altogether, they will stop giving any signs of consciousness. Consciousness is the center of our experience, and still having it after death goes against all we see.

Consider if we didn’t need a brain for consciousness. If this were true, then there’s no reason why any object couldn’t be considered conscious, and there’s no reason for us to have bodies in the first place. And as far as near-death experiences, their very name – near-death – immediately disqualifies them as evidence for life after death.

What makes us human is our capacity for conscious thought, reason, and emotion. We see that all of these are completely dependent on brain activity. Why would this dependency cease upon death? Why is it so difficult to grasp that we are mortal, biological creatures? My theory is that believers do not like the idea of dying forever. It makes them feel uncomfortable, and they shy away from the idea. Believers are more concerned with how their beliefs make them feel, and atheists are more concerned with whether or not their beliefs are true.

- Evan

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Universe: a double-edged sword

We live in a beautiful and mysterious place. On Earth, our skies are a calming shade of blue, our clouds are fluffy and white, and our atmosphere burns up incoming meteorites and filters out dangerous radiation. Our plant life is green and vibrant, and provides our planet with vital oxygen that it would not otherwise have. Our animals are intriguing, beautiful, and extremely varied, each occupying a niche of its environment and serving a purpose in the food chain, a food chain that gives life on Earth autonomy. We are at an ideal distance from our sun, and our own moon stabilizes Earth’s climate, which is among the reasons why terrestrial life has flourished here. Even the planet Jupiter, with its massive gravitational influence, acts like shield for life on Earth, deflecting countless rogue comets and asteroids.

It seems as if everything here is perfect. Everything is fine-tuned, and it all promotes our existence. How could this place not have been made for us? The answer comes from simply looking at what we have in context with the forces of the Earth and the cosmos that would have us dead. For brevity, I have included only a fraction of these:

The Cosmos:
1) 65 million years ago, an asteroid unsympathetically struck our planet, and wiped out all but a few tendrils of the tree of life. The universe does not care that we are alive; we are participants in it, and are susceptible to its destructive forces.
2) Gamma-ray bursts are the most violent explosions in the universe. They most often occur in other galaxies, but are so powerful that they are visible to the naked eye from 10 billion lightyears away (the other side of the universe!). They are highly directional and very rare, but if one were to strike Earth, every point on the planet would experience something similar to standing a mile away from an atomic bomb.
3) In 5 billion years, our sun will turn into a red giant, engulfing our planet.
4) The Milky Way galaxy is on a one-way collision course with the Andromeda galaxy.
5) The laws of nature are NOT perfect for life. 99.9999% of the volume of the known universe will kill life instantly (heat, radiation, cold).

The Earth:
1) Earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, volcanos, hurricanes, lightning strikes, attacks from other life forms (including deadly plants and animals, infections, and other humans).
2) 99% of all life that has ever lived on Earth is now extinct.
3) We can’t live on 2/3 of the Earth’s surface, we could freeze or starve on half of what remains.

I am thankful to be alive and to live on Earth. But when I look at all the events of Earth and the universe (not just the good ones), I see that this place is in no way perfectly tuned for our existence.

- Evan

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Three Misconceptions

Over my many years observing the atheist vs. theist debates on the internet and on television, I have heard many statements involving misconceptions about either scientific theories or about atheists themselves.

1. “Atheists believe in nothing.”

Atheists believe in nothing supernatural, and still look at the world with a sense of wonder, still experience love and emotions, still have ethics, and still strongly believe that the universe and the life in it has value. Atheists are real people, and the phrase “atheists believe in nothing” treats them like they are inhuman scoundrels. There is a different term for believing in nothing, and it is called nihilism.

If you think that disbelief in the supernatural makes the world worthless, you are essentially saying that the world, in and of itself, is not good enough. You believe that it needs something more; you cannot be happy with it as it is. If this is what you believe, then I think you are taking it all for granted. As an inhabitant of this planet, you really have a lot to be thankful for.

2. “Atheists think that everything came from nothing.”

This statement stems from a misconception of the big bang theory. If you look at the trajectories of all the galaxies in the universe, then rewind time, everything was in the same miniscule point 14 billion years ago. No one knows what happened before that. Anything mentioned before that point is pure speculation. Also, the big bang was not an explosion of matter in an already-existing infinite space. It was an expansion of the universe (matter, space, and time), as if the entire universe were an inflating balloon.

3. “I didn’t come from a monkey!”

Evolutionary biologists agree! Humans did not descend from apes, but instead are related to them, like distant cousins. Humans and apes are modern animals, and share a common ancestor from millions of years ago, an ancestor that was neither human nor ape. This one species diverged into two separate lines, one leading to the apes of today, and one leading to humans.

- Evan

Saturday, December 12, 2009

God: The Heart of the Matter

Unfortunately, I think many atheists, even prominent ones, have misconceptions about what is going on in the mind of most believers. I don’t pretend to know what is going on in peoples’ minds, but I think I have a better idea than some about what is at the core of believing in God. Such statements as: “religious people are God's slaves,” or “religion makes people take this life for granted, dismissing this world as unimportant and merely a transitional stage to the next,” while having some measure of truth, do not, in my opinion, really speak with believers. This is because the believers just don’t see it that way. In order to get people thinking, you must get on their level, and must not rely on too many statements that the religious cannot connect with.

At the root of religious belief is an inner feeling. To believers, believing in God feels special; it feels right. They cannot imagine a world without God, without that amazing feeling. It is this inner conviction that drives belief. There are many traditional arguments for the existence of God, but instead of showing why these arguments fail, we can just make the point that these arguments are not why people become religious in the first place. Religious people don’t need use arguments to justify their belief in God, they know that God exists – it is how they feel. This statement doesn’t come from me, but from many believers themselves. Viewed in this light, arguments for God are an attempt to make religion seem rational when in fact it is not.

Given that religious belief is rooted in inner conviction, my strategy is to show that inner conviction, no matter how amazing or transcendental or special it seems to you, is no way to judge whether or not a belief is true. Many people around the world use the same grounds – personal conviction – to justify completely incompatible beliefs. Anything that can be used to justify many different incompatible claims is a horrible indicator of truth.

I believe that religious people are concerned with how their beliefs make them feel, and atheists are concerned with whether or not their beliefs are true. For those of you who cannot imagine a world without a god, I think you should try harder. Imagine what it would be like to be an atheist. For as you know, atheists still have happiness and values. What would it be like if it were just us and this beautiful world?

- Evan