Friday, July 26, 2013

Questions For Atheists - Part 2 (Science, Origins, Design & Order, Evolution)

Continuing from part 1 on my answers to the questions posed by Catholic apologist Phil Fernandes on his site,, the next group of questions concern the origin of the universe and evolution and get a bit more complex. But Phil's questions overall are mostly softballs. They'd only be a challenge to a high school kid or college kid who's never looked deeply into the reasons why they are an atheist and who is not knowledgeable of science. I am; and I show how his questions show how ignorant he is of our current scientific knowledge.

1. Do you believe that the Universe expanded from a primordial hot and dense initial condition at some finite time in the past and continues to expand to this day? 

Yes. The big bang and inflationary models show that that is pretty much exactly what happened.

2. Rewinding back to the origin of the Universe, how much matter can be put into zero spatial volume? 

According to the laws of physics, as we rewind the clock back to the singularity, the energy and density levels reach infinity, while the radius of the singularity becomes zero. Physicist Alexander Vilenkin writes about this in his book Many Worlds In One.

3. If a Supernatural Transcendent Causal Agent does NOT exist, what brought the Universe into existence?

This question assumes that the universe must have had a cause. But if the beginning of the universe is the beginning of time itself, then it could not have had a cause, because the the cause would have had to precede time. That's logically equivalent of saying that I was born before I was born. It's impossible. We are simply in no position to assert that the universe has a cause because quantum mechanics shows us that things can begin to exist uncaused. Alex Vilenkin said in an interview

In quantum physics, events do not necessarily have a cause, just some probability. As such, there is some probability for the universe to pop out of “nothing.” You can find the relative probability for it to be this size or that size and have various properties, but there will not be a particular cause for any of it, just probabilities.

If you combine the probability of quantum mechanics with the B-theory of time, you can a strong picture that the universe doesn't need a cause and that it never began to exist in the true ontological sense. 

4. Can you provide EMPIRICAL evidence for ANYTHING spontaneously appearing out of nowhere?

"Nowhere" is the key word here. Nothing that happens in our universe will truly be nowhere, it will always be somewhere - because it's in the universe. So this question is deliberately worded in such a way that it cannot be answered. The closest we can get to "nowhere" is the quantum vacuum where we can observe virtual particles spontaneously appearing out of. But since theists demand verification when it comes to science that refutes their claims, I demand the same "empirical evidence" for the miraculous claims that Catholics assert as truth.

5. What is your best explanation for the origins of intelligent life? Why?

My best explanation is not the best explanation because I'm not an evolutionary biologist. But, any explanation that I can give will be better than "god did it." As multicellular life evolved, predation arose as a byproduct. Once predation arose, there was an evolutionary arms race between predator and prey. This set in motion the natural selection mechanism that favored for organisms sensing their environments because it could allow them to find food and avoid danger better. Organisms became aware of their environment and rudimentary consciousness arose. Natural selection favored those organisms whose consciousness could process more complex information and eventually one organism's consciousness got so complex that it became conscious of itself. One of those species was homo sapiens - us.

1. If there is no God, how do you explain the high degree of design and order in the Universe?

Squeezed into this question is the presumption of design - as if we knew for a fact that the universe was designed. The laws of physics naturally allow regularity and on top of that nothing can be illogical. There are no possible worlds where square-circles exist or one-ended sticks. But if the theist thinks chaos will exist without god, then we have to look no further than the possibility of other universes where their physical laws differ to such a degree where the universes are chaotic. Now we can only describe such worlds mathematically, but it is a strong possibility that these lifeless chaotic worlds out number our seemingly ordinary universe.

1. Is the theory of evolution THE refutation to divine creation? Why?

Pertaining only to life, the answer is no. Evolution picks up right after life develops, but it says nothing about the origin of life itself. Abiogenesis is science behind the origin of life. 

2. Is the theory of macro-evolution a scientific fact? How do you know?

Yes. Macroevolution is as much a scientific fact as any we have. We know this from the fossil record showing transitional fossils in exactly the way evolutionary theory predicts. We also know this from the genetic record that shows variations in species exactly the way they'd appear if they had evolved. In fact, the Christian geneticist Dr. Francis Collins says in his book The Language of God, “Darwin’s framework of variation and natural selection, is unquestionably correct” (141). There can be no tenable worldview today that denies the fact of evolution. 

3. Aren't our genetic components exactly the same as mice, not apes? Wouldn't that make our common ancestor more likely to be a mouse based on evolutionary theory?

Phil offers no source here to back up this claim, so I'm inclined to take it as creationist propaganda. It is well known that humans and chimpanzees are about 98% genetically identical. Humans and neanderthals are about 99.5% genetically identical, so much so that there is debate as to whether they were a different species or a subspecies of humans. Since mice are mammals like us, we'd expect to have many close similarities, but Phil needs to cite a source to make his point. 

4. In relation to all other ‘descendents’, why are the following ‘Cultural Big Bangs’ unique only to the human species?

a. Creating and wearing clothing
b. Creating and wearing jewelery
c. Creating and using advanced tools
d. Creating and dancing to music
e. Creating and cherishing art
f. Linguistic evolution
g. Creating symbols and writing languages
h. Writing about the future
i. Succeeding agriculturally
j. Celebrating birth
k. Burying the dead
l. Worshiping God(s)

The overall tone I get from these questions on Phil's website is a skepticism of evolution that resembles creationism. On the "Evolution" link on Phil's site, it says he favors old earth creationism which he defined as the "view accepts the standard scientific views of the age of the universe and the Earth, but rejects evolution. Genesis 1 is interpreted fairly literally, with the exception that the six days of creation were actually six eras, not literal 24-hour days. Hence, this view is sometimes called the "day-age" view." So in other words, Phil outright rejects evolution and think all species, including humans, were created more or less as they are today by god over the course of several "eras."

So let me address points a to l in his question. 

a-c. We don't know for sure if wearing clothes, creating jewelry, advanced tools were unique to human beings. Neanderthals were able to make clothes, and we have evidence that they did make jewelry. They made spears and stone knives and you could call that advanced since no other living species today besides us can do so. And we know that neanderthals did not evolve into us. They were a separate lineage of the genus homo. So Phil is flat our wrong on these points.

d-e. We don't know if neanderthals danced or had music since these things don't fossilize. So we cannot say for sure if these things are unique to us. But animal mating habits in many species have been observed in which animals dance and sing. Since singing was the first instrument, it can be considered a musical instrument. 

Consider the mating dance of various tropical birds like this one:

f. We know from sequencing neanderthal DNA that they carried the FOXP2 gene which is critical for language development in humans. Combined with a study of their larynx that showed they could physically talk, it means neanderthals were genetically and physically capable of language. So Phil is flat our wrong here too and his case against evolution and for theism is crumbling.

g. If painted shells can be counted as symbols then neanderthals appear to have achieved this. Written language is not something that developed until relatively recently in human history only about 5-10,000 years ago. There were several "Cultural Big Bangs" where writing developed independently in the Middle East, China and Mesoamerica. But interestingly, there are human civilizations that never developed writing. So are these civilizations absent of the divine spark that theists like Phil Fernandes thinks makes us so great? If so, why was god so selective?

h. Obviously we can talk about the future, so once we developed writing, we were able to write about the future. No other species we know of was able to invent writing, so writing appears to be a unique byproduct of our particular evolution. But nothing divine is required to explain writing. 

i. Agriculture developed just before the invention of writing in the Middle East roughly around 10,000 years ago. No other species we know of - including neanderthals - developed agriculture, but much like writing, it developed as a byproduct of our evolved consciousness that natural selection determined was beneficial.

j. All conscious animals celebrate birth in one way or another. They don't celebrate birthdays like humans do of course, but not all human cultures do either. There are tribes in Papua New Guinea where nobody knows their birthday. The uniqueness of celebrating birth in the  way humans do is for the same reasons that justify i, h, and g (and that I explained in question 5 of "Origins").

k. We have evidence that neanderthals may have buried their dead. So it may not be unique to us. 

Watch A Neanderthal Burial on PBS. See more from NOVA.
l. Worshiping gods appears to be unique to human beings since it is not known if neanderthals were capable of it. Although, since we have evidence they observed rituals, we cannot rule out the possibility. Aside from this, there has been a tremendous amount of study on the phenomena of religious belief. The prevailing argument why we are religious is that evolution made it beneficial to attribute agency and intentionality behind natural processes in the form of false positives. It's assuming that there's something there that isn't. The opposite of a false positive is a false negative. It's assuming that there isn't something there when there is. As a matter of survival, false positives benefited us and so we became hard wired to think in such a way. This laid the foundation of religious beliefs. Religious beliefs in spirits and gods were an inevitable consequence of the way evolution hard wired the human brain. So you could say that religion is naturally embedded into us (but not all of us), by reasons we can explain evolutionarily.

For further reading on this subject, you can read my post here, Michael Shermer's book The Believing Brain, and Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

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