Sunday, June 28, 2009

Another YouTube Challenge

This one is entitled “5 Questions Every Intelligent Atheist MUST answer.” I thought the “MUST” in all capitals was cute.

Question #1 - "Aren’t you using random chance as a substitute for the “God of the Gaps?”

No, I don’t think so. We know, from observation, that certain events, such as genetic mutation occur and that these events appear random. A key word here is “appear.” Perhaps if we knew all the variables involved, they wouldn’t, but we don’t so “random” supplies a reasonable approximation.

We can even measure the rate at which these events occur and observe some of their effects. So no, this isn’t the same thing as the "God of the Gaps." Observation and measurement leading to an inference is not the same thing as saying I don’t understand how it happened so “GOD DID IT!”

Question #2 – "Why should there be something instead of nothing?"

I could ask why should there be nothing instead of something? Clearly we exist. What science has been trying to understand is how we came to exist. Perhaps that might lead to an understanding of why we exist and perhaps not. Maybe we’re just a temporary cosmic accident that will strut and fret its hour upon the stage and then be heard no more.

Question #3 – "Where do you get your morals?"

Here we go again with the idea that morality can only come from God. Men can use their intelligence and reason to agree upon a greater good, establish rules to bring that greater good about and enforce laws against breaking those rules. Mankind has been doing it since the dawn of civilization. The greater good could be as simple as the survival of the tribe or as complex as the glory of the empire.

Question #4 – "How can morals evolve?"

Why do they have to? In explaining this question, the video maker implies that evolution needs to intelligently move toward an objective for morals to evolve. First of all it’s unlikely that “morals” do evolve.

Second of all Natural Selection is not intelligent nor does it have any objective or goal. If a trait or mutation confers a reproductive benefit, more organisms in the next generation will have that trait or mutation and even more will have it in the generation after that. Eventually it will extend throughout the gene pool. It really is just simple arithmetic.

Most “morals” are probably learned traits. The ability to inherit learned traits is called Lamarckism and has generally been discredited (BUT some recent experiments at MIT indicate that perhaps the concept needs to be revisited at least with respect to some environmental effects).

Morals may not evolve but survival, reproductive and perhaps co-operative instincts do. Most individuals will choose actions that enhance their survival and ability to reproduce. Often those actions have been declared by society to be “moral.”

Individuals that don’t follow the rules tend to get ostracized or expelled which makes it difficult to survive or reproduce. This is normally not an effective strategy.

The point is that “morals” don’t need to evolve as long as survival and reproductive instincts do and following the rules is safer than not following them.

Question #5 - "Can nature generate complex organisms when originally there was none?"

If what is meant by the question is going from nothing to a complex organism in one step, then the answer is no, it can’t. This is called “spontaneous generation” and Louis Pasteur laid that hypothesis to rest over a hundred years ago.

If however what is meant by the question is can it occur in a series of thousands or even millions of steps starting with an extremely simple cell and then laboriously, over millions of years, evolve into a complex organism, the answer is obviously yes because it has. We’re here aren’t we? The question is how?

There are two distinct steps to this hypothetical process. The first step is the emergence of the first simple living cell. The second step is Evolution and Natural Selection which takes over once the first cell appears.

That Evolution occurs is a fact. The question of whether it can produce complex organisms using only the tools of genetic mutation and Natural Selection is, to my mind, not entirely clear. That’s why science keeps looking, like revisiting the idea of Lamarckism at MIT.

The first step is also something of a problem. The current hypothesis is that, under the right conditions, organic chemistry can produce simple cells and then Evolution will begin and ultimately lead to the proliferation of life that we see today. Perhaps, but I don’t think we know with any degree of probability exactly how that first step can occur.

You are free to postulate that neither step can occur without the guidance of a supernatural authority. However, you will excuse me if we continue to search for answers rather than throw our hands into the air and say “GOD DID IT!”

To be satisfied with “GOD DID IT” is to accept being ignorant. If there is a God, and he directed the development of man, then he decreed that we have intelligence, the ability to reason and a thirst for knowledge. To not use those gifts to discover the secrets of creation would be to sabotage the deity’s rationale for our creation.

Therefore to my mind, whether there is a God or not isn’t the question, in either case we should place our energies into science and the effort to advance man’s knowledge of the universe. To accept “GOD DID IT” as the answer is a blasphemy. The only question is whether it’s a blasphemy against men or a blasphemy against God.

As I've said before, Atheism is the null hypothesis and the burden of proof is on the Theist to topple that hypothesis with compelling evidence or a compelling argument. This video is again essentially an attempt to shift the burden of proof. I find it entertaining to address questions like this but technically the Atheist doesn't have to answer a damn thing. It's the Theist that is making the positive assertion and who needs to answer the questions.

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