Saturday, January 26, 2008

Where are the 'Six reasons to believe in God'?

This one is going in my Corrigendopedia:

I'm not against the idea of God or against people's belief in God. Frankly, I have no interests staked on this question. But sometimes, people who don't have a good grasp of critical thinking will come up with the strangest, most logic-defying reasons to persuade others to believe as they do. These 'reasons' don't work, so why bother? (Possibly because the next person is just as likely to have a poor grasp of critical thinking skills?)

Pardon me for my brashness - this is not a subject I normally write about. The Swill Man asked me (being a "trustworthy skeptic") to "debunk" a lovely little article called Is There a God? because he could not wrap his head around the "sheer bullshit of it all". With all the logical contortions, that's not surprising to me.

I suggest reading my post (before reading the article, linked below) so you can most vividly see what went on in my head when I read it for myself.

Here goes:

As I've written times innumerable, a skeptic is someone who insists on having evidence before they make up their mind about something - therefore, they won't take things on faith. Skeptics are very careful that way!

On the other hand, a naysayer is someone who insists on making a conclusion before they have evidence, therefore they will take things on faith (so even if they say they're a skeptic, they're not, and they probably need to know they're not!).

Isn't that a huge difference? Most English speakers don't understand that because the word 'skeptic' is misused to the point of meaninglessness. Just remember, 'skeptic' means someone who wants to know more before they come to any final decision.

Well, at the beginning of the article, there is a statement to the effect of; if you aren't intrigued by all the reasons to believe in God, you're just a naysayer because you've already made up your mind.

I am of course very open to evidence, being a skeptic and all. So what do I know about life, the universe and everything? (This is so you know what my take on this article is, remember?)

The Emergence of Life

The first thing I ought to get to is how life developed on earth. I say 'developed' rather than 'evolved' because evolution can only act upon life forms: So, the origins of life is a different subject, and one that hasn't been studied nearly so well. Nevertheless, there are clues that hint at ways in which life could arise from non-life.

In 1957, the first proto-cells were created in the lab of biochemist Sidney W. Fox, using purely nonliving chemicals. He found that his 'microspheres' had double membranes and could grow, reproduce, and respond to stimuli in the world around them - just like living cells! Unlike living cells, they lacked genetic material - but, he reasoned, additional structures like that could accumulate over time.

He made the microspheres by heating amino acids, which are naturally-occurring, carbon-based molecules common throughout the galaxy and are abundant in objects such as comets and even meteors. Amino acids also happen to be fundamental to life on earth and make up our DNA and RNA - plus there are more types of 'outer space' amino acids than ones found in earth's life. (Could they have potential, too?)

Fox's amino acids, which were cooking in conditions similar to earth's geysers and thermal vents, systematically assembled themselves into thermal proteins. When placed in water, the proteins spontaneously formed into microspheres. That's right: This all happened through normal chemical reactions, all by itself, without any interference other than controlled conditions.

There has been much research on the origins of life done since then. It is now known that when life first appeared - close to four billion years ago, as indicated by changes in chemicals preserved in rocks - the earth may have been completely covered in ice.

As it turns out, freezing is known to speed up the chemical process that can lead to life by isolating organic molecules from water; as ice crystals form, the amino acids and other substances which would have probably been common (such as cyanide) are all squashed together and form into complex molecules and systems which resemble those of living organisms.

So, humans can set up situations which are likely to have occurred and then watch the potential beginnings of life form - well within the limits of a human lifespan! In geological terms, that's more or less instantaneous. If we humans can watch near-organisms emerge from utterly sterile environments, then why couldn't life create itself amongst nature's innumerable test tubes? It had plenty of time.

The Only Possibility?

The next subject involves the question; "Where could life develop?" Since the same materials and conditions could be found on all manner of planets, it seems reasonable to say that earth is not the only possible place. On top of that, any life would need to be able to adapt if the planet's conditions changed drastically - earth has put its life through several such occasions.

If some kind of life develops on a world that was constantly boiling hot or perpetually frosty, it's safe to say that this life would be adapted to conditions that would kill us. Life is known to thrive in any number of environments - between grains of iron or salt, submerged in sulfuric acid, under snowpack, etc. - which is common to the vast majority of Earth's species.

These organisms are collectively called extremophilesor "lovers of extreme conditions". It is estimated that up to one half of the weight of all the organisms on this planet are extremophiles! Alien life may be quite different, if it exists, but there's no reason to think that any planet out there - even one more like Jupiter or Mars - simply couldn't have any life.

There could even be organisms which find something like water to be a deadly poison, or life which found a way to breathe liquid methane or carbon monoxide (just as we found a way to breathe a highly corrosive gas called oxygen). It just depends on the materials at hand that make up both the life form and the environment. What is there to work with?

Earth's life is the way it is, partly because water (one oxygen and two hydrogens) is a great solvent and because carbon can be part of a great variety of molecules (especially oxygen and hydrogen). Thus, earth's life is said to be 'carbon based' - so it should come to no surprise that your body is about 65% oxygen, 18% carbon and 10% hydrogen, plus a little nitrogen and some minerals.

Carbon-based life would not always have to make the same molecules as it does on earth - it could potentially use a variety of other elements, or it could use the same elements, but in different proportions, depending on what was available. But, life may not need to be carbon-based. Silicon is another potential base, and may work better in different situations than earthly conditions. But besides atoms themselves, other factors can affect chemistry, including gravity, the quality of sunlight, the temperature, and magnetic fields.

Even so, environments that earthly life could potentially survive on apparently do exist - the moon Europa looks especially hospitable because it may have liquid water. But one need not look within our solar system: Hundreds of planets have been discovered orbiting other stars - more than fifteen have been discovered each year! - and astronomers have only begun the search.

One planet, called 2M1207b, has actually been photographed, though the others are only detectable by using a wide variety of indirect methods (which, nevertheless, tend to agree with one another). Though gas giants - being large and thus easy to spot - are generally the ones to be discovered, small, rocky planets like earth are thought to be more common. Gliese 581 c is one such planet, and is the closest candidate for having an Earth-like climate.

My Point?

Though I've only skimmed the basics, my point is that with everything that's been discovered on the subject, the relevant scientists do in general agree that living things could potentially arise under natural conditions on earth, or even on another planet!

They also agree that, considering the apparent billions of stars in the galaxy and millions of galaxies in the universe (each with their own countless stars), there must be plenty of places like Earth, and maybe other kinds of planets that could spawn and support life.

One important concept here is that life which formed on any planet would obviously be descended from a replicating chemical system that formed from the natural environment. And whatever changes befell that planet, such as the weather, this life would be obliged to adapt in whatever way it could. On earth, these are called 'mass extinction events' because the organisms living at the time are not prepared for such changes.

Simply put; why do we have legs? So we can walk - on the Earth! If we tried to walk on, say, a much smaller planet, we wouldn't get any traction and we'd fall down. On a large enough planet, we would not be able to support our own weight. Or, we may simply be crushed.

Why do we have lungs for breathing the Earth's atmosphere and eyes for seeing in the Earth's atmosphere? Because Earth is the planet with Earth's atmosphere. Walking around on another planet (of the same mass, presumably) without a space suit might blind you if it didn't kill you first. (The same could be said for an alien from another planet doing the same thing here.)

For actual, concrete examples of species (from birds to bacteria) adapting to their environment, and how people have figured out that this process has been going on continually for hundreds of millions of years and how it works, you'll want to see the 'Evolution' section.

The Point of My Point?

I wrote all that because the author of the article, Marilyn Adamson, believes that the universe (and supposedly all its trillions of stars and planets) revolve around the human species, and that everything on this pale blue dot caters to our personal needs. How do I know? Because that is the 'First Reason to believe in God'.

In the very least having read everything I wrote here (there's plenty more, though), you should have some idea that all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion: Life (including us) is ever-changing because it must adapt to whatever the earth shells out.

The leg-like fins of ancient fossil fish show that they were evolving to carry themselves onto land when they needed to. The first amphibians, which had fin-like legs, didn't need very large ones because Earth's gravity wasn't all that strong. (If it were stronger, their legs would have to have been a bit bigger before they could walk properly.)

Whatever their legs had turned out to be like, they would have been adapted to working within the laws of gravity; gravity is not adjusted to be perfect for every single species so that it can walk (or fly or swim).

Most of the cells of earth's organisms commonly need salt water, while some need fresh water - but hardly any of them could live in water full of arsenic! (Some, nevertheless, do.) The most simple explanation is because the earth has vastly more salt water than fresh water, and vastly more fresh water than arsenic water! Some organisms, such as certain types of fish, are adapted to regularly alternate between living in salt water and fresh water.

But, according to Adamson, the reason for fresh water is us. If we needed salt water, then the reason for salt water would be us. Similarly, Adamson says that fish need to stay unfrozen in the winter, therefore ice doesn't reach them.Well, what if the ice did reach the fish? Why couldn't they be like some species of frogs or insects which survive the winter by freezing almost solid? Well, if fish did that, the argument would then be that ice is being charitable by freezing fish solid every year.

What is wrong with this type of thinking? The problem is, it doesn't matter what you see, whatever it is is evidence. This type of thinking basically means that because we drink fresh water, that's evidence of God. What if we drank salt water because there was no fresh water? That would be evidence, too! If we were aliens floating around on Saturn, the fact that we would have built-in hydrogen balloons to keep us aloft would also count as evidence that God made us, because otherwise we'd crash.

In science, there's always a way to tell if your hypothesis doesn't make sense. With this type of thinking, the sky is not even the limit: Everything, by definition, is right, so nothing could be wrong! Where's the reasoning in that?

Reason Number Two: The human brain is amazing.

The human brain is amazing. We have a hind-brain and a mid-brain and a fore-brain. Even frogs do, but theirs are not as complex as ours. All the basic parts of our brains are found in other organisms and show signs from being sloppily jimmy-rigged from more simple versions. (The more closely-related the species, the more similar their brain is to ours.)

Human brains are typical of mammals and are most similar to those of apes. This makes sense because fossil, developmental and genetic evidence, etc. show that the lineage of humans and chimpanzees split off about six million years ago (possibly more).

Adams asks; did the human brain just come together all at once by chance, randomly? Evolutionary scientists say no; the human brain is but one variation of a mammalian brain and has certain regions and characteristics that are only found in primate brains. It is but one possible version of what can happen in primate evolution.

What Adams seems to imply is that they say the opposite, that there was no brain at all and then suddenly, the human brain popped into existence from some random quirk of the universe, inside a human head no less, which is just plain incomprehensible nonsense to any scientist.

Reason Number Three: Randomness can't make anything.

Who says it can? Natural processes are not random because they follow the laws of physics. Life follows the laws of chemistry. Humans are getting close to creating life, etc.

After life has formed, it is subject to selection. The theory of natural selection a very non-random process; the act of nature selecting can hardly be called 'pure chance'. Mutations, which happen all the time, are themselves random, and they fuel natural selection by adding new variables into the 'editing system'.

As for the assertion that there is precise information found in DNA makes no sense. What is 'precise information'? I would expect that even biologists do not know because this is not a scientific term.

Does it refer to genes, which make up a tiny fraction of our DNA? A gene that codes for one thing in one organism generally codes for the same or similar things throughout all species. From this we can tell that genes show signs of evolving through replication and mutation.

The more similar the species, the more similar the genes. Also, there are 'fossil genes' which are genes that no longer function - and related species often either have the same fossil gene or a working version of that gene. What is the purpose of fossil genes, then?

Reason Number Four, A:
Lots of people believe in God because of their subjective experiences.

I don't doubt that this happens all the time. But what are people really experiencing? A lot of people believe that God acts in their lives, just as a lot of people believe that other such beings do the same things. Even I did at one time. This is evidence that people believe there are deities and spirits which affect their lives. It is not evidence that it is a result of any one of these things.

What it does seem to be a result of is, ironically, that our brains are very complicated: It's a side effect of our amazing reasoning skills - we look for causal patterns we believe exist and do what we can to confirm what we expect (and we don't remember when we fail to find that pattern). This is why scientists are always trying to falsify what they suspect is a real pattern.

Reason Number Four, B:
Also, the universe is complex.

Yes, the universe is complex, but it is far from showing signs of being 'precisely designed'. Whatever that is supposed to mean. Organisms are especially non-precise because they are sloppily built and carry out countless processes with more stages than are necessary.

If species just appeared, then why do embryos develop all kinds of body parts only found in the adults of their ancestors, just to get rid of them or turn them into a completely different shape?

A famous example is the gill arches of jawless fish. In jawless fish embryos, gill arches develop and become gill arches in adults. In all animals that have jaws, gill arches develop and become jaws and other facial bones, depending on what is typical of that lineage.

Looking at the numerous fossil forms that transition between reptiles and mammals, they start out with a typical reptile jaw hinge - between two certain bones - then move onto having both the reptile and mammal jaw hinge at one time, then end up with the two bones of the reptile jaw hinge becoming the malleus and incus to characteristic of mammalian inner ears.

To corroborate this evidence, in observing the development of mammal embryos, one can see these same jaw bones become unattached and move into the ear canal, exactly as it is seen in the fossil record. In opossums, this transformation happens because the brain grows so much larger than that of a reptile and 'pushes' the bones into place!

If this never happened in history, then why wouldn't we start out with the ear bones, jaw bones and everything else already in place? Why do whale embryos develop legs if they aren't useful? The fossil record shows many transitional species between land mammals and whales, and the developmental stages mirror the fossil stages. And another question; why does the vagus nerve of all vertebrates - a nerve that goes from the back of the head to the front of the head - loop around an artery in the chest?

In fish, this is not really an indirect route because they do not have necks per se. In the giraffe, the nerve - which could otherwise be only a few inches long - has to be nearly sixteen feet in length in order to get to its destination! That makes sense because the nerve evolved before the neck did.

Why is nature so inefficient that way?

Reality shows that life was designed by nature, it didn't randomly happen, and that various species sloppily developed from others. Why don't pandas have opposable thumbs if this would benefit them? Because the panda's ancestor had wrist bones that were more handy for wedging bamboo in than its digits.

I could go on for a couple of days with more examples. Unfortunately, that's not very time-efficient.

Reason number five: Some people feel that God pursues us.

A lot of people get that feeling. Most either don't, or get a feeling that something else spiritual is after them. Regardless, is a feeling that something exists proof that it does exist? Some people are positive that inanimate objects, like houses, are trying to communicate to them. Is that why they feel it's so real?

I was reading an article about the feeling of God. There is indeed a basic brain firing pattern that corresponds to feeling at one with the universe or with the deity of your choice. The difference in interpretation of this feeling is determined by what the person perceives it's supposed to mean.

So, the ones who believe it is God interpret the feeling as God, others interpret it as something else. There's no objective evidence that says it is one way or another.

Reason number six: Jesus is the only one who said he's God.

He also told everyone not to worship him. Jesus is actually a typical example of a story in which there is a man conceived by a deity, performed miracles, is crucified, etc. However, the whole thing about him being the only person who is a child of god, as opposed to everyone being one, seems to stem from all the extensive editing of the New Testament (largely in John) which occurred long after it was first written.

I get this information from the many historians who specifically study the way in which the bible has changed over time and which historical figures are responsible. Apparently, a lot of biblical tenants that modern Christians take for granted (like burning in Hell for eternity) were not around for the original Christians!

Besides that, just because something was written down doesn't mean it happened. Just look at the fiction section of your local library. Jesus may have been based on a real person, but that doesn't mean his actions in life couldn't be exaggerated in some way.

The legend of the pied piper, who led Hamelin's rats to their death, then led the children to their death when he wasn't paid for his amazing extermination, is a story that probably has no literal truth to it. Possibly it may be meant to symbolize something that really happened. And yet, there are people in Hamlin today who maintain that the literal events in the story are 'actual facts'.

Why? Because it's part of their heritage. When someone identifies themselves with a legend, however improbable, they might wind up believing it is completely true.

I would go on, but I really have better things to do. If I left out something important, please let me know. Oh, and the article:

Six Reasons to Believe in God? Or are they?


Galtron said...

Woah!! That's so many points I can't think of more right now. But, I will let you know!

G-Man said...

Why would UFO's be visiting us for years and only make contact with a select few?
Funny...Thats how God operates!!
Coincidence? I think not!
What a freak out it will be when we find out that we are just a "Grand Experiment"...An Alien Ant Farm!!!
Loved your post, I actually could follow this one...G

monado said...

Good analysis. I'm always amazed at the people who think that, just because life developed this way on this planet, it must be the same everywhere. They're like 10-year-olds who think that every family has the same table manners as theirs. What if it were hotter and silicon were chemically active enough to be the organic molecule for life? What if it were cold enough for superconducting hydrogen crystals? What about all those other religions and denominations that think only they have it right? Sheesh.

S E E Quine said...

` Heh heh! Indeed, Galtron! And I will let you know about things and stuff as well.

` Glad I could write followably enough for you, G-Man!
` Yeah, wouldn't it be great if we were an ant farm and creatures were actually paying attention to us? But then... if the aliens made us, where did they come from!??!?

` Indeed, Monado, I think you hit the nail on the head! It's all about seeing the big picture, not to mention have an understanding of the way some things could be different than they are.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

I’ve never encountered a proof of God’s existence based upon “the Earth and the Moon are perfectly adapted to life.” Theologically, in the spirit of Descartes, if there were no life there would be no one to ask the question.

Likewise, that “the human brain is amazing” also seems to beg the question even than the first. Again, “cogito ergo sum.”

Especially since the 1920s and the rebellion of the so-called Christian fundamentalists against mainline theology, the idea that God works all sorts of magic tricks—miracles—and that’s how God influences the world. Mainline theologians do not deny the existence of miracles but do reject that idea that God is a big Houdini somewhere beyond our sight. “Randomness” isn’t rejected; rather God is seen as the first cause/prime mover that set the universe into motion.

The Pietists of the 17th and 18th centuries, predecessors of my own denomination, while acknowledge the importance of an intellectual understanding of the faith, spiritual growth must be based upon experiencing God subjectively in one’s life.

Of course the universe is complex. See “prime mover” above.

Yes, God does “pursue” people. God seeks to be in community with all creation. Unfortunately, some unstable folk project upon God the unresolved issues of their own lives with thoughts such as “God is punishing me,” “if I had only gone to church more often then…,” etc. It just ain’t so.

I completely agree: many biblical tenants that modern Christians take for granted were not around for the original Christians; also a lot that folks believe is biblical simply ain’t. Furthermore, Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be God—or a “god” which is more relevant to the Hellenistic world in which the church was founded. It was Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament, who deified him.

Thanks for your work in writing this post, dear Sara. Now I shall take off my theologian’s hat and go play with the cat.

S E E Quine said...

` Ah, Nick! Theologian Nick! (Who's actually gone to school for this type of thing and knows tons more than me!) You've hit the other nail on the head!
` Indeed, if people want to believe in God, that's fine, but if they're going to come up with 'reasons' for his existence, then they had better make sense!

` If the universe wasn't the way it is, then we wouldn't be here! I probably could have clarified this in my article and gone into the weak anthropic principle, but I didn't.
` Part of the reason is that the anthropic principle sees our existence being possible in the opposite way that, say, Adamson does.
` However, many people have somehow misinterpreted it to mean instead that the world was created for us,. I didn't want to complicate things by bringing that up.
` But yeah, I am surprised by people who make such arguments. My argument back is; If God is so powerful, then why couldn't he make the whole universe in such a way as to create life forms like us?
` That's the one thing they don't seem to consider.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Good job, Sara!

I believe that the idea that “the world was created for us” is important to address. Too many folks take the second creation story in Genesis as meaning exactly that, then rationalize that we humans can do anything we like with the world and it’s OK because it is created for us.

Bull! That’s neither what Genesis says nor theologically valid. Rather, our relationship with creation is one of stewards/caretakers, not exploiters.

Of course, they holy writing of all religions can and are manipulated by folks, both believers and non-believers. It’s rather like the old adage: “In the beginning God created humans in the image of God and we humans have been repaying the compliment ever since by creating God in our image.”

S E E Quine said...

` Hehhh I like that adage!

` Yeah, sure, we can do whatever we want with the Earth, and why not bring back DDT? That's what my 'Creation Science' book said.... I didn't get an education, growing up.

Gledwood said...

that's a great post, thank you!

so the English aren't sceptical at all... we're just professionally prejudiced poopooers:~ haha!

S E E Quine said...

` From what I've heard, that's probably an accurate assessment!