Thursday, September 30, 2010

Common Objections to Christianity (Part Two)

Ray, in chapter 12 of How to Know God Exists, considers the claim that the Mosaic Law contains many elements that don't quite match our notions of the sort of law that a perfectly just and perfectly loving God would ordain.  There are, e.g. laws that permit the execution of rebellious children, or command the death penalty for homosexuals, idolators, adulterers, etc.  There's the casual acceptance of slavery -- both temporary bondage for debt applied to fellow Israelites, and straightforward chattel slavery applied to non-Israelites.


Now, such laws should, I think, be evaluated in light of standards prevailing internationally when they were adopted.  For example, the law that allows an engaged woman who has sexual relations with someone other than her fiancĂ© to be stoned at her parents' doorstep should be evaluated in light of the honor killings that are associated with middle eastern tribal cultures to this day.  Likewise, the laws regarding stoning of rebellious sons should be seen in light of the widespread concept of the head of a family having life and death power over its members.  Back in the early iron age, a law saying that a man needed the consent of the town elders, a court order, to kill his slut of a daughter or his disobedient son (and that he couldn't deliberately kill  his slacker slave at all!) must have aroused dark mutterings about nanny-state interference with parental rights.

But that's not quite Ray's approach.  On the one hand, he can't raise the arguments that the Mosaic law represented incremental ameliorations of tribal customs (much less that it represented a series of them over time: that the law was not given all at one time but evolved); he has to present a case that this was a perfect law code given by a perfect God.   On the other, he really doesn't seem enthusiastic about the merits of capital punishment for gays or atheists or pagans  or misbehaving teens or even Muslims.  He argues that there's no biblical evidence that most of these death penalties were ever applied.  Harsh penalties, he states, work well to discourage people from committing the offense.

This is a rather odd argument.  Even if Ray has never heard Samuel Johnson's anecdote about seeing pickpockets working the crowd at the hanging of a pickpocket, or considered the honor killings that go on today in the Middle East (where girls know perfectly well that such things happen), he ought to consider the sheer number of unrepentant "false converts" and non-converts that he claims know that God exists and that Hell awaits the unrepentant.  Eternal fiery torment is just about as harsh a penalty as ever focussed a man's mind, and it plainly is less than 100% effective.   He ought, on that ground, conclude that the ancient Israelites were probably stoning adulteresses, homosexuals, and rebellious sons fairly frequently, whether the Bible mentioned this or not.  The problem is that his theology tells him that God's law -- even "ceremonial" and "civic" laws no longer in effect, as well as a "moral" law that it -- must be perfect, objective, and absolute, and his conscience tells him that it isn't.  

Common Objections to Christianity (Part One)

Since Ray, in earlier chapters of How to Know God Exists, has made a case (not the best case; perhaps not even his best cause, but a case) that there is evidence for Christianity, "there's insufficient evidence" is an objection dealt with only in passing and cursorily in chapter twelve.  Rather, he considers four broad categories of complaint (I've consolidated about thirteen objections he lists).


First is the problem of human (and animal) suffering if there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good and loving God.  If God knows about children with cancer, earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in Asia, etc. and loves us and seeks our good, and is able to do anything, why doesn't He do something about these things?


Second is the problem that the Bible presents claims about God that are hard to reconcile with the claims that He is perfectly just, that justice tempered only by perfect love.  From enacting savage laws to ordering genocidal wars, God doesn't seem terribly loving or just in parts of the Bible.


Third is the problem that Christians very often do not demonstrate the holy and benevolent character that God is supposed to instill in them.  Hitler claimed to be a Christian.  So do a lot of churchgoers whose daily conduct, while far from genocidal or tyrannical, is also no better than that of your average non-Christian.

Fourth is the problem of whether the Bible's factual claims are more trustworthy than, say, those of the Elder Edda or Homer.

Ray deals with the first problem by converting it into another example of the second: God has cursed creation, he says, for the sins of Adam and Eve.  That is, God is tormenting and killing kittens and African orphans and elderly Japanese with Alzheimer's for the offense of ancestors they've never heard of and whose actions occurred hundreds of generations before they were born.  This, like declaring eternal war on the Amalekites for the wrongdoing of one particular generation of Amalekites, is hard to reconcile with the more individualistic justice extolled and promised in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel: "the soul that sins [not his son or great-to-the-hundredth grandson) shall die."

Ray deals with the second by arguing that we need to to consider the overall picture in the Bible.  God, he claims, is seen as really perfectly loving when you take into account everything the Bible says about Him.  Ray does not develop this idea to the extent seen in some comments to his blog: e.g. that the massacre of the Canaanites was loving and merciful because the adults were bound for Hell anyway, and this way the kids escaped Hell (one must wonder why, if this logic has such merit,  Jesus was shown as so resistant to such reasoning when his disciples asked him to call down fire from heaven on an inhospitable Samaritan city).  Rather, he presents a rather anemic case that, okay, God had His moments of misogyny, racism, and genocidal sociopathy, but He did a lot of nice stuff too!  Ray doesn't consider, even to reject the idea, that the Bible reflects an evolving and inconsistent (across time and sometimes within a single generation) conception of God.

Ray deals with the third problem by insisting that Christians who persecuted heretics and infidels, or harassed scientists, or waged wars of conquest and oppression, were not true Christians.  There are no hypocrites (or genocidal racists like Hitler) in the true Church, Ray insists, but there are plenty who look, superficially, as if they're in the church.  Indeed, it would appear that true Christians are a scattered archipelago in the vast sea of false converts.   One must wonder just how successful God's plan of salvation has been, or whether it bears the marks of supreme and illimitable power and wisdom, when it has won such a small fraction even of the apparent church to true repentance and faith.

And Ray deals with the fourth problem mainly through argument from assertion (e.g. the Bible was written by men who only wrote down what God told them to, so it's obviously as infallible as if God wrote it directly Himself), although he does note that the Bible is right about some things that can be checked historically and that several ancient historians seemed to accept Christian claims that Jesus really existed.  And then, he quotes a passage from Josephus about Jesus that is widely considered, even by Christian scholars, to at least include emendations and embellishments by Christian copyists ("He was the Messiah," etc.).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alleged Mistakes in the Bible

Ray limits himself, in chapter 11 of How to Know God Exists, to alleged contradictions between one biblical statement and another.  Having apparently settled, to his own satisfaction, the scientific accuracy of the Bible in the previous chapter, he does not address alleged scientific mistakes in the Bible, and for some reason he takes no notice of alleged historical mistakes (e.g. having Quirinius as governor of Syria and Herod the Great as king of Judea at the same time).  Even so, he's obviously bitten off a larger subject than can be handled in one chapter; consider, e.g. that the Skeptics' Annotated Bible finds an alleged contradiction on nearly every page, and that Bart Ehrman's God's Problem lists several allegedly contradictory explanations of human suffering alone, it would take a book several times longer than this one to cover all alleged biblical contradictions even in a cursory manner.  But even given the necessarily limited scope of one short chapter, Ray's handling of the question is problematic.


Ray argues that biblical passages must be interpreted in the context of the whole Bible.  This is actually a bit question-begging, since it assumes from the start that the Bible is entirely self-consistent and free from contradictions, which is of course the point under consideration.  And even so, in practice "the context of the whole Bible" tends to mean "the context of what Ray thinks the Bible means."  Ray insists, thus, that there is no contradiction between claims that nothing is impossible with God, and the claim that despite God being with Judah, the men of Judah could not defeat the chariot-equipped armies of the plains dwellers in Judges 1.  The men of Judah were, Ray informs us, apparently fearful and disobedient, although no biblical text hints at such lack of faith on this occasion.


Ray makes a fair case that some alleged contradictions are mere nit-picking (e.g. the supposed contradiction between Jesus' command to love even one's enemies and his command to his disciples to limit their first evangelistic mission to Jewish towns).  And he omits entirely some rather well-worn apparent contradictions (e.g. the dueling genealogies of Jesus -- through Joseph the husband of Mary -- in Matthew and Luke).  But he makes a near-total hash of some efforts.  

Take, for an obvious (given Ray's emphasis on the Ten Commandments as the standard by which God judges us) contrast between the Old Testament emphasis on Sabbath observance (not working on the seventh day of the week) as a permanent institution and the New Testament insistence that Sabbath observance was a matter of personal choice, irrelevant to serving God.  Ray argues that Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly and delivered us from the letter of the law, but this doesn't really address the issue.  Presumably Jesus equally perfectly fulfilled the commandments against adultery, theft, and idolatry, but Ray does not seem to feel that observance of these is a matter of personal preference.  He argues that Christians are saved by faith, not by following the law, but this doesn't really answer the question of why not murdering or stealing are acts that are expected to follow from faith, and not working on Saturday is not.  A similar point applies to Ray's similar treatment of circumcision.

Changing the subject is not quite the same thing as showing that a seeming contradiction is not a real contradiction.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

This Day Was Different (Part Three)

Ray argues, in the concluding part of chapter 10, that we have, or can have, three separate sources of knowledge of God: creation, from which God's existence can be deduced, conscience, from which God's nature and demands can be deduced, and conversion, through which we become new creatures and gain experiential knowledge of God.  The Bible apparently falls into the first category, although it contains appeals to the second category.  But the Bible is not necessary to conversion: Ray notes that the early converts to Christianity didn't have it in complete form, if they had it at all, and even today people can come to a knowledge of Christ without a knowledge of the Bible (indeed, one must suppose that even people raised in Christian homes must often accept Christ repent and have faith before they undertake a detailed study of the Bible (if they ever get around to that part).

The title of the chapter refers to the effects of creation: one feels differently, believes different, has, Ray insists, been changed at a fundamental level into something or someone new.  The Bible can strengthen faith (because it contains supernatural knowledge of the future and of creation, and indeed of the convert's own experience) even when it played no direct part in creating it.  So the ultimate grounds on which one can know that God exists is that one knows God, personally.  And if one does not know God, no mere appeal to logic and evidence can prevail against Ray's subjective certainty that God exists.  Ray may not know what evolution is, or what "scientists" believed in the middle ages, and may be a bit shaky on the fine points of logical reasoning and testing of inferences, but he knows that God exists.  And this, of course, creates a problem: how do you argue with subjective experience?  One can point out that you don't share it, but this Ray dismisses by saying that you have never repented and converted (even if we recall doing so at one point, we are, at best, kidding ourselves if not outright lying).  One can point out that people can change their own behavior, and that not all Christian apologists seem to reflect this new nature that Ray says that Christians have, but Ray can diagnose false conversion and deny the relevance of our subjective human wisdom against what God has revealed to him.  It's an airtight, unfalsifiable position: basically, if you can convince yourself that God exists, you can be certain that God exists.  But subjective certainty is rather removed from the "scientific proof" that the subtitle of How to Know God Exists promises

This Day Was Different (Part Two)

Flavius Josephus, noted first-century author of The Wars of the Jews, described cosmology as he understood it: the Earth was a flat disk, surmounted by the solid dome of the sky, across which the sun traversed, from east to west on the inside by day, and from west to east on the outside by night.  The apocryphal Book of Enoch likewise describes a flat Earth and solid dome sky.  Now, the Old Testament actually has many passages that fit this cosmology (cf. references to "the windows of the sky" in Genesis and Malachi, or references to the sun running back at night to the place where it rose), but that's really a side issue here.

Ray insists, in the section of chapter 10 of this book, that "the scriptures tell us that the Earth is round ... not flat or square," but it obviously didn't tell Josephus, or the author of Enoch, or Lactantius Firmianus, or Theophilus of Antioch, that the Earth was a sphere.  Given that none of these men were utter dolts, this is either evidence that the Bible is a dud of a teacher, or that it does not actually reveal the sphericity of the Earth (again, whether it gives false information on the shape of the Earth is a separate question).  Now, it's one thing to suggest that the hardness of our hearts makes humans reluctant to suppose that "love your enemies" or "love of money is the root of all sorts of evil" mean exactly what they say, what sinful desires are served by Christians obstinately insisting that the Earth is flat, if scripture really tells them otherwise?  Christians did indeed come to accept that the Earth was a sphere, but they did so as an accommodation to classical philosophy (Comfort, in what I can only consider a revelation of his fundamental unseriousness, insists that in the 15th century, "science" taught that the Earth was flat; how this is to be reconciled with his claim that science was an invention of Bible-believing and Bible-taught Christians I cannot quite figure out).

Note that Pythagoras, in the fifth century BC, figured out that the Earth is a sphere without divine inspiration and with no technology not available centuries earlier; even if the Bible did clearly state that the Earth was a sphere, it would not be knowledge that proved supernatural inspiration.  This is, indeed, a problem for the other examples Ray cites: from the fact that things wear out (which is not quite the same as the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but is probably all Ray understands of that law), to the fact that water has to have some way of getting back from oceans and lakes to river sources, to the fact that there are currents in the Mediterranean, to suitable dimensions for barges, every bit of "knowledge of creation" that Ray finds in scripture could have been deduced by bronze-age men using human faculties for observation and deduction.  Even the idea that the Earth "hangs upon nothing" was inferred by the pagan Greeks through purely human means (though the Bible also speaks of the Earth having pillars, and having "waters beneath the Earth" on which it presumably floats; for a consistent Old Testament cosmology, you need to interpret the Earth's pillars as holding up the solid dome of the sky, and "hanging upon nothing" as referring to the fact that the tent-like sky had no central pole to keep it from collapsing onto the flat Earth).

Ray also interprets Hebrews 11:3 as referring to atoms.  While this would not, in itself, be astonishing (the pagan philosopher Democritus had proposed atomism four centuries earlier, and it was part of the Epicurean philosophy that is mentioned in the Bible), Ray's interpretation would imply that Christians knew by faith what Epicureans believed by human reason or speculation, which seems an odd interpretation, especially in light of the Church's long suspicion of atomism.  Of course, the whole point of How to Know God Exists would be undercut if Ray interpreted that verse in the most plausible manner: that only through faith, not observation, do Christians understand that the world and life's diversity and complexity were supernaturally created rather than produced by natural processes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

This Day Was Different (Part One)

This chapter of  How to Know God Exists is different.  Ray argues for the first half of the chapter that on the one hand the Bible is clearly of supernatural origin, and hence further proof of God, and in the second that the Bible is not actually necessary in order to know God and be saved.  Note that this is not a contradiction or absurdity: the earliest church did not have the New Testament and were not unanimous on what constituted the Old Testament (and many were illiterate and could not read such scriptures as they had).  But it does result in a rather sharp change in tone and method halfway through the chapter.


Ray offers two main lines of evidence for the supernatural inspiration of the scriptural text, knowledge of creation (nature) and knowledge of the future.  "Over 25 percent of the Bible contains specific predictive prophecies that have been literally fulfilled" Ray states, and "only One Who is omniscient can accurately predict events thousands of years in the future."  There are three problems with this position.  


First, just to nitpick, as anyone who's ever read a time-travel story should realize, the ability to predict some things about the future doesn't necessarily include the ability to know everything about the future, past, and present.  Even in the Old Testament, God's ability to foretell the future is often presented as indistinguishable from His power to bring about the events He foretells: not omniscience, but simply sufficient power to overcome any opposition.  If you're arguing literally for God -- not merely a being much more powerful and capable than we mere humans are, but an omnipotent, omniscient Ruler and Creator -- prophecy may not good enough because it's not hard enough.


Second, though, is not a nitpick: some of the actual examples Ray provides of fulfilled prophecy depend on the assumption that that Bible provides an inerrant account of the life of Jesus.  We know that the gospels say that Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver and buried in a rich man's tomb.  We don't actually know that the Bible is right on any of these points.  Conversely, we're pretty sure that Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia happened and is referred to (in symbols) in the book of Daniel, but we have no evidence that Daniel was written before rather than after that conquest.  We have to assume that the Bible is accurate to accept the evidence that Ray offers for the accuracy of the Bible.


Third, Ray is stretching a point when he speaks of "specific predictive prophecies" that are "literally fulfilled."  He notes, as one striking prophecy almost certainly issued before archaeologists and historians tell us it was fulfilled, Ezekiel's prophecy of the destruction of Tyre.  Ezekiel predicts that this will be accomplished by Nebuchadnezzer, probably after Nebuchadnezzer had already started his campaign against Tyre.  Ezekiel doesn't mention Tyre holding out in is offshore redoubt for another two or three centuries until Alexander the Great shows up.  He does predict that the city will be totally destroyed, which is hard to reconcile with the fact that it still existed in Jesus' day (it is referred to in the New Testament), and indeed there is still a village by that name (Arabic Sur, cognate with Canaanite Sor) there today. The prophecy is literally and exactly fulfilled, for a loose and non-literal sense of "literally and exactly."


The same point applies, indeed, to many of the prophecies said to be fulfilled by Jesus.  Isaiah's "virgin birth" prophecy may not predict that the child will be born to a literal virgin, and in any case refers to a sign offered to King Ahaz of Judah seven centuries before the birth of Jesus.  The prophecy in Zechariah that speaks of giving thirty pieces of silver to the potter is in connection with a threat to withdraw God's protection from a disobedient Judah; there is nothing in the text to suggest that it is Messianic.  We need to accept the New Testament writers' interpretation of the verse, as well as their claim that Judas betrayed Jesus for this price, to see it as a fulfilled prophecy.  Daniel definitely predicts (or refers back to) Alexander the Great, but his supposed references to the Roman Empire might as easily, or more easily, refer to the regime of Antiochus Epiphanes (to whose career so much of the book refers, and whose overthrow is implied in Daniel to usher in the Messianic Empire).


Ray argues that even one fulfilled prophecy would prove the Bible's supernatural origins.  Given his insistence on the Biblical standard for prophecy (100% accuracy), one wonders if he would concede the converse: if Nebuchadnezzer didn't render Egypt an uninhabited wasteland for thirty years, does this prove that the Bible contains uninspired, purely natural works?  


But a more direct objection is that on Ray's own showing, prophecy is sufficiently open to interpretation and reinterpretation that some passage can be re-made into a vaticinium ex eventu, a prediction after the fact, for almost any event.  One can see this in the last century: it was said, a century ago, that it was sufficient proof of divine inspiration to read Barnes' Notes on Revelation side by side with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The startling correlations Barnes noted between the text of Revelation and, e.g. the Turkish invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire still exist, but the fashion for interpreting Revelation has changed, and now we are to marvel, instead, at the striking correlations between Revelation and the existence of bar code readers, the European Union, and the establishment of modern Israel.

Three Wise Fools

Ray Comfort opens chapter 9 of How to Know God Exists with an analogy: three skeptics are invited to witness a demonstration of electric power.  They do not believe in electric power, because they cannot see it, unlike, apparently, the air they breathe, the gravity that keeps them and the air on Earth, or their own internal organs.  These skeptics have the opportunity to test electricity by just flipping a switch and watching a light come on, but reject it because they find some apparent errors in a biographical sketch of Thomas Edison provided by the power company, and because electricity has been used to kill animals and people.  They will not make the simple test to see if electricity is real.


Now, there are some minor disanalogies between Ray's imagined situation and skeptics' responses to Christianity.  


For one thing, Ray wants us to test Christianity by actually believing and repenting.  How does he know that we've done that?  For that matter, how do we know that we've done that (I was under the impression -- which Ray rejects -- that at one time I had done that)?  Apparently, the proof that you've really repented and believed is that you have the subjective experience of knowing God (and part of the proof that you really know God is that you keep saying you do; you never decide that you thought you knew God but were mistaken).  There's very little room for controversy or differences of opinion on whether or not I've flipped an electrical switch (and if I refuse to do it, someone else can do it for me).  But Ray can't repent for me, or tell if I've really repented or not.


Then of course there's the fact that the power company makes no claims that using electricity will make you a kinder, gentler person, or that "true electricity" can never be used for bad ends, or even that its brochures are completely inerrant.  If electricity can be used to murder and to execute murderers, that has no bearing whatsoever on the reality of electricity or the truth of the power company's claims.  But if Christianity does not change believers' lives -- or if it does, but there are so few true believers that they get lost in the masses of false converts -- that has rather more bearing on the claims Christianity makes for itself.


But this is Ray's fourth argument for the existence of (specifically the Christian) God: the personal experience of Christians.  It is backed up by an implicit appeal to Pascal's wager.  Some atheists are fond of attributing Christianity and Christian conversions simply to the fear of death and the desire to escape it.  Ray's response to this allegation is to embrace it completely and enthusiastically: ten out of ten people die, he reminds us, and our fear of death is a God-given instinct driving us to embrace a chance at immortality when it's offered.   Whether one can genuinely believe and repent out of fear of non-existence is an interesting question.  Whether the experiences arising out of such belief are evidence of anything beyond a capacity for self-delusion is another.  Ray has offered us, here, a reason (however strong or weak or contemptible you find it) to believe, but hardly a way to know that God exists.

This still doesn't quite get past Simpson's Rejoinder to Pascal's Wager: "But Marge, what if we've picked the wrong religion?  Then every time we go to church, we're just making God madder and madder!"  Ray still hasn't demonstrated that his parachutes work and rival company's don't, or that the Bible's threats of Hell are more credible than the Koran's.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Four Gifts

In chapter 8 of How to Know God Exists, Ray Comfort offers his best case for the proposition that Christianity is more like Christianity than any other religion is.  I would have to say that in general he succeeds in this, despite some questionable assertions about what the other religions he discusses believe.  For example, while Guatama Buddha himself made no claims to supernatural status and discouraged theological dogma and speculation, many Buddhists do indeed worship a God or gods (many, indeed, worship Buddha himself); atheist Buddhists are mostly a western phenomenon.  Many Buddhists, like many Hindus, accept reincarnation, and those of both faiths who do see the analog of salvation in ending the cycle of reincarnation, not simply being reincarnated into some better lifestyle.  Muslims do stress good works, but also stress the importance of faith (which in both religions is supposed to issue in good works) and repentance; the distinction between the Muslim position and the Christian comes down to whether human beings are even capable of doing anything pleasing to God.  Ray in general ignores the diversity of theological positions in all these faiths.


Ray has, in the previous chapter, argued that humans of all cultures and backgrounds tend to accept that there is good and evil, and tend to agree on which is which.  From this, he rather too neatly and easily proceeded to the view that everyone in his heart accepts the Christian verdict of humanity's problem: that we are born corrupt, that all of us (at least once we reach the age of accountability) are incapable of behaving properly, and face God's eternal and implacable wrath for our sins (none of which are trivial or lightly forgivable).  Given this diagnosis, he proclaims confidently that only Christianity offers what we need to be saved: reincarnation and nirvana are myths, simply doing God's will on our own is impossible, and we need Someone to pay the infinite price of our sins.  He dismisses without even considering the fact that, e.g. a Muslim would have a slightly but significantly different diagnosis of our condition, while a Hindu would have an even more different one, and a Buddhist a different one yet.  Ray insists that he has the right answer because he refuses to consider that he might have the wrong question.

The title for the chapter comes from one of Ray's analogies: if you're on a plane that's about to crash, and were offered any one of four gifts, which would you accept: the original Mona Lisa, a brand new Lamborghini, ten million dollars, or a parachute?  Of course, if the plane represents our life and the crash represents the end of that life and whatever comes after it, then we don't get to use the parachute until after we crash; under such circumstances, perhaps we'd prefer a nice car to drive away from the crash site, or some money to spend on new clothes to replace our lost luggage, or something nice to hang on the wall of the hotel room.  By the same token, Ray is too quick to mock the idea of reincarnation; he presents it as the belief that after you jump out of the plane, you get sucked into a new plane and assigned seating according to how you behaved on the first plane.  It should be, you crash, and then the Christian holds that your parachute will bear you safely to the ground, while the believer in reincarnation thinks you just get onto another plane.  Make the details of the analogy consistent, and it's harder to see why one faith is stranger than the other.

Evolution's Strange Dilemma

MVP recently noted that thus far, How to Know God Exists has limited itself to Ray Comfort's "a painting proves a painter, creation proves a Creator" argument, and wonders if Ray has any other arrows in his evidential quiver.  I myself think that two arguments can be distinguished here: a "first cause" argument and the classic "design" argument (the two most successful of Aquinas' famous "five ways"), but that pretty much exhausts the inventory of the first six chapters.  Even the argument from dead scientists' authority is an argument that they saw design in nature.


But in chapter 7, Ray moves on to a third argument.  Humans are widely religious; the overwhelming majority of humans today and historically accept not only that they were designed but that the Designer has (or designers have) a personal interest in them.   If, Ray asks, evolution is supposed to have shaped our minds to grasp and deal with reality, why is there such widespread acceptance of Something that atheists insist is not real and has no real evidence?  If evolution has shaped our faculties for purposes -- if we hunger because we need food, and food exists, and we feel thirsty because we need water and water exists, and we feel sexual desire because we need sex to reproduce (and it exists), then ought we not consider, indeed embrace, the idea that we (many of us, anyway) feel a need for God because God exists and we really need Him?


This is not quite a "dilemma" in the strict sense (a forced choice between only two alternatives: in this case, either a real God or some single "atheist evolutionist" account of why people wrongly believe in Him), since evolutionists have proposed various explanations for religion.  A popular one is "over-attribution of agency" (also known as "hyperactive agent detection" or "faces in the clouds"): we evolved as social animals, ever ready to infer motives and purposes because our fellow hominines had motives and purposes (i.e. are actors or agents), and we ended up attributing motives and purposes even to many things that lacked them, from trees and rivers to the presumed invisible powers that sent rain or caused eclipses.  On this view, religion is an epistemic mistake; this view is often supplemented with the view that over time, priests and princes have invoked these invisible agents as supernatural supporters of their own privileges.  Conversely, there is the idea that interest in supernatural agents is a side issue, and that religion has direct evolutionary benefits by increasing the chances of reproductive success by those who took part in it (e.g. through enhanced cooperation and mutual support).

Still, it is interesting that creationists who so often marvel that evolution should shape our senses so that we perceive material things accurately (e.g. so that we don't mistake a hungry leopard for a berry bush and approach it for a meal) seem to implicitly assume that it would shape our minds so that we could not make seriously erroneous inferences about nonphysical, supernatural entities -- inferences that won't lead to our immediate deaths if we get them wrong.

Another widespread if not quite universal human trait is a moral sense: a view that some things are good, others bad, and that one should feel (and usually does) feel guilty when one does bad things.  Ray notes that even surviving stone-age tribes accept that murder and theft and adultery are bad.  Why, he asks, are humans uniquely and (almost) universally moral animals?  He argues that without a Creator, we have no basis for absolute morals, so a moral nature is further evidence for a Creator.

This idea needs to be unpacked in some detail, as it conflates several different and questionable assumptions.

First, from an evolutionary point of view, of course, a moral sense is something shaped by natural selection to enable us to live in groups and cooperate for mutual benefit: "good" are things that promote social order and fair play, and "bad" are things that reduce society to a bloody-taloned war of all against all.  Ray makes a dubious assertion when he claims that only humans have morality; gorillas have been noted to display compassion and caring, and even monkeys seem to have a sense of fair play.

Note that what makes things "moral," though, is not their selective value, but the fact that we have been shaped to value them: the moral sense itself, not natural selection which presumably shaped it, is the basis of morality.  Just as an arctic fox has stubby limbs and white fur because these were selected for heat conservation and camoflage, but doesn't have them because it's trying to conserve heat or avoid detection, so our ancestors didn't show compassion or fair play because they wanted to leave more descendants, but because they felt like doing so -- and these feelings happened, in fact, to promote their survival.

Second, how does a Creator provide a basis for absolute morality?  If the Creator somehow built morality directly into the fabric of nature (particularly human nature), then what matters, again, is what human nature is like, not how it became that way: morality exists without reference to an Author of morality.  If, rather, morality depends crucially on the Creator's edicts, then what is "absolute" except the Creator's power?  This is a pure case of "right makes might might makes right:" God's will is good because He can burn you forever for defying it, and for no other reason.  Note that "might makes right" is different from "might defends right;" of course, it would be nice to have assurance that Someone is keeping score and that in the end justice will prevail, but "it would be nice" is not, strictly speaking, evidence.

Third, it's not at all clear that creationism or the Bible provides a truly unchanging morality.  The Bible has a lot of verses that can be quoted, apparently in context, in support of human slavery (Ray argues in a later chapter that biblical slavery was much more humane than, say, the antebellum American version of it, but in either version you could, e.g. beat a slave legally if you didn't kill him outright while doing it, or sell the children of foreign slaves as you could the offspring of your cattle).   The founders of the Protestant Reformation were as convinced as  their Catholic contemporaries that it was moral and Christian to use lethal state power to enforce Christian orthodoxy, yet Ray, I think, would not endorse such a position today.  In practice, religious morality seems as fluid and malleable as secular morality.

Ray ends the chapter with his classic "good person test:" have you ever lusted after another person in your heart?  Then you are an adulterer, and are clearly deserving of eternal torment, even if you don't feel that way.  There is some tension between this approach and the earlier argument about universal human moral intuitions: humans don't universally morally intuit that telling one lie, or shoplifting one candy bar, deserve eternal unrelenting pain.  If widespread human desires and feelings are evidence of a supernatural realm, they would seem to be equally evidence against Ray's particular view of how that realm works and judges.  And if human judgment on these matters can be flawed and unreliable, then why should we assume that people are right when they assume that there must be some supernatural realm that enforces justice?

Science and Atheism

Chapter 6 of How to Know God Exists is in part of summary of the book so far.  Ray reprises his arguments that the universe is extraordinarily fine-tuned, that the universe can not have come from nothing, that abiogenesis is impossible without miracles, and that evolution is impossible.

Fine-tuning, of course, means that the universe has properties that permit stars and planets to form naturally and persist for billions of years: conditions permitting evolution.  It always strikes me as odd when a young-earth creationist, or a "no one knows how old the universe is" creationist, brings up fine-tuning.  Young-earth creationists are fond of arguing that this or that feature of the universe could not persist for millions, much less billions, of years, that (though they don't quite put it that way) God has slapped together some Yugo universe that will fall apart after a few thousand years of normal use.  A young-earther wouldn't expect and cannot explain fine-tuning (an evolutionist might be reduced to uncertain speculation about the cause of fine-tuning, but he'd certainly expect it).

Assuming that the universe could not have come from literally nothing, this does not, of course, rule out the possibilities that it came from not very much at all, or has existed for all time (all time perhaps being a finite amount of time, or the universe having existed in other forms before this).   "The universe must have come from something" is very short of a demonstration that the universe must have been manufactured by an uncreated omnipotent Creator.

Noting that we have as yet no very detailed and well-tested theory of abiogenesis does not prove that no such theory is possible or that abiogenesis would require supernatural intervention, any more than ignorance of Plasmodium parasites before the modern age meant that malaria was, in the past, caused by bad smells or demons.

And Ray simply asserts, about evolution, things that are demonstrably not true: that there is no concrete evidence for it (thus ignoring transitional fossils, comparative anatomy, comparative genomics, ERVs, pseudogenes, biogeography, etc.), that the Law of Biogenesis, which permits Brussels sprouts and cauliflower to be bred from the same species, somehow prevents changes from accumulating enough to transgress the nebulous boundaries around "created kinds."

On the subject of evolution, Ray does not so much quote-mine as simply miss the point of a statement by Stephen Gould that Homo sapiens is a "glorious accident," the result of an estimated sixty trillion contingent events.  Ray wonders how anyone could accept evolution in view of those odds and the fact that we are, after all, here: how could one believe that all those events just happened to occur in exactly the right way at exactly the right time?  But one could raise the same question about Ray himself, or any of his readers: starting with the first humans, how many hundreds of generations of ancestors had to marry just the right people, how many times did just the right sperm have to encounter just the right egg, to produce all our ancestors and any of us?  If things had gone differently, different people would be here, just as blithely unconcerned with the unlikelihood of their ancestors as we are.  And if evolution had taken a different route at any of those sixty trillion turning points (and Gould's point, of course, was that it very well could have), vastly different species and vastly different individuals would be here, but perhaps some of them would be intelligent and just as complacently certain as Ray that any plausible theory of origins had to explain why they were inevitable.

The bulk of the chapter consists of pointing out that historically, a lot of really smart people have believed in God.  Ray asserts that science cannot contradict Christianity, since science arose in a Christian culture, and that faith itself cannot be a problem, since since we all have faith in something, whether God or human reason.  Against the first point, I note that Christian culture, even more than Christianity itself, is a complex thing with many intellectual and ideological elements and no guarantee that they are all self-consistent and consistent with each other.  It doesn't follow that because Christianity contains some elements that are science-friendly that Christianity as a whole is consistent with science, much less supported by it.

Against the second, I note that everyone must have some faith in human observation and reason just to get out of bed in the morning (or, indeed, to conclude in the morning that he is in bed).  "Faith" in the working of your computer or your car or your logic is not the same  thing as "faith" that some collection of ancient writings simply must be self-consistent and inerrant, and that any evidence to the contrary must be fake or misunderstood.  Ray tries to ask us to give up faith in mere humans for faith in humans' infallible Creator, but he must end up asking us to keep that faith in mere humans, and add to it faith in a set of ideas compiled and interpreted by more mere humans.

Indeed, in some ways, it seems, Ray has more faith in human reason than I do: given that historically, quite a few very smart human beings have believed that, e.g. the sun orbits the Earth, I wouldn't assume that Isaac Newton's conviction that the universe exhibited the marks of an intelligent Designer automatically carried the same weight as his laws of motion and gravity.  Whether we're talking about Albert Einstein or Antony Flew, they achieved fame and a reputation for genius because their ideas stood up to examination and turned out to be brilliant; their ideas were not considered brilliant or right merely because they were geniuses.  And this applies to their views on God as much as to their views on gravity: Steno, for example, was not only a geological genius (and expert anatomist); he was a convert to Roman Catholicism who ended his life as a bishop.  Would Ray have us embrace his Catholicism along with his theism, or will Ray have us suppose that Steno could, like the rest of us, be wrong sometimes, even in his theological opinions?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mutant Turtles

Chapter 5 of How to Know God Exists is mostly about mutants; all it has to say about turtles is that there are no transitional fossils linking them to their presumed ancestors, the cotylosaurs.  This is no longer quite true; there is Odontochelys semistestacea, a toothed (unlike toothless modern turtles) proto-turtle with a plastron (belly armor) but no shell on its back (to be sure, it is possible that this represents the secondary loss of an already-evolved upper shell), but transitional fossils leading up to true turtles are still rare.  This does not, of course, make those australopiths and early hominines, whales with hind legs and small heads, feathered theropods, etc. go away.  As noted in the review of the previous chapter, the fossil record is demonstrably very incomplete; gaps are to be expected.


Ray also briefly discusses vestigial organs, dismissing them as evidence for evolution on the grounds that they represent a loss rather than a gain of information, and because it can never be demonstrated conclusively that a vestige has no function.  But total lack of function is not, of course, part of the definition of "vestigial," and has not been since Darwin noted that there were organs that had apparently lost their primary function even while remaining serviceable for other functions.  One does not need to show, e.g. that an ostrich's wings have no function at all to notice that they don't serve the usual purpose of bird wings: ostriches cannot fly.  One does not need to show that the human plantaris tendon does nothing at all to show that it doesn't enable humans to clench their feet into fists, as its homolog in nonhuman apes does.  And one must wonder, if humans don't share ancestry with other primates, why we even have a tendon homologous to one that enables them to clench their feet (or why we have muscles to erect our no-longer-existent fur, or why we have pseudogenes by the dozen associated with smelling abilities we don't have.  It's not mere paucity of function that makes vestiges evidence, but rather their homology -- their detailed similarity not required for similarity of function -- to structures that serve very different functions in obviously similar species.

Most of the chapter is about why mutations do not enable one "kind" to evolve into another.  Ray spends a surprising number of lines and quote-mines to argue that mutations are random (this is in connection with a misunderstanding of punctuated equilibria, which Ray apparently thinks means that environmental pressures can cause a lizard to lay an egg that hatches out into a robin).  That's not how he puts it; he argues that mutations exist before the environmental conditions that select for or against them, and do not arise in response to need, but then, that's more or less what "random mutations" means.  He offers no dissent from the view that mutations occur, that they occur frequently, and that a few of them are beneficial, and that different mutations are beneficial in different environments.  So we may take Ray as conceding that mutations occur and can be, on rare occasions, beneficial.

Ray argues that mutations do not "add information," and that even if they do, this added information cannot accumulate to produce novel organs, structures, and abilities.  Ray is not nearly so clear on what "added information" actually would be, or how one would determine or compare the information content of a gene as he is that whatever information is, mutations cannot create it.

If "added information" is an attribute of the genome itself, one might suppose that, e.g. gene duplication would count, at least if one of the copies subsequently mutates (so that the descendant has all the genes of its ancestor plus a new, different gene).  Known sorts of mutations include single-nucleotide substitutions, insertions or deletions of a single nucleotide, duplications, deletions, or transpositions of sections of the genome, and duplication of the entire genome (polyploidy).  In principle, a succession of such mutations could change any genome to any other genome; if some genomes contain "more information" than others, then logically, known sorts of mutations ought to be able to add "information" to the genome.

If "added information" is an attribute of the phenotype, the organism's anatomy and behavior, then one would suppose that, e.g. the (micro)evolution of cecal valves in the wall lizards stranded on Pod Mrcaru would count, or the evolution of multicellularity in Chlorella vulgaris in the lab when the unicellular organism was exposed to a predator.  The lizards have valves in their guts that their ancestors did not; the single-celled organisms were no longer isolated cells, but formed part of an symmetric ball of such cells (and required changes in their cell membranes to enable them to stick together in a regular fashion).

Ah, but Ray notes (with supporting quote mines, including one from Francisco Ayala, who, given that he is famous as a critic of creationism and the intelligent design movement, presumably does not actually think that mutations cannot accumulate into new structures, although he may well believe that accumulation of small adaptions does not cause speciation) that even if mutations add information, this added information can't keep accumulating into a new structure.  What use, he asks, quoting Stephen Gould, would two percent of a wing be?  Ray describes a 2% wing as a tiny, useless stub sticking out of the side of a bird; surely such a thing could not help the bird fly.

Now, what is 2% of a wing?  One might be inclined to start with coelurosaurs, and see that 2% wing in the arm of something like the down-covered forelimb of Sinosauropteryx: in this case, that two percent would be an insulated, grasping or climbing arm.  It would not work as a wing, but it would work as a forelimb suitable for a warm-blooded predator.  A 20% arm would be something with more complete feathers, used for display, to look larger and more threatening or to impress potential mates, and a 50% wing (say, something like the fore- and hind limbs of Microraptor) would be useful for gliding (analogous to the "half-formed wings" of flying squirrels).

But perhaps that's too far along; perhaps a better example of a 2% wing would be the boneless pectoral fins of early Devonian jawless fish: they didn't enable their possessors to fly, grab things, or even crawl, but they provided weak aid to steering and propulsion.  Perhaps a better example of a 20% wing would be the lobe fins of something like Tiktaalik, able to scull along the bottom of shallow bodies of water or even to push itself up.  We might view Sinosauropteryx as at least halfway to a wing, and so forth.

The point is that we shouldn't think, in viewing the origin of organs and parts, of some beakless, wingless, legless, heartless and lungless and eyeless version of a crow struggling to survive and fly while natural selection worked frantically on random mutations to enable it to live as a crow.  One percent of an eye functioned for some near-microscopic animal that benefited from the mere ability to detect changes in local light levels.  One percent of a lung functioned in fish that got most of their oxygen through gills and benefited from (but didn't strictly need) a tiny boost from oxygen gulped from the air.  One percent of a wing functioned as something other than a wing.  Small benefits can accumulate because the function of structures evolves as the populations that bear those structures evolves.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Origin of Species

The most striking fact about the fourth chapter of How to Know God Exists, in which Ray discusses the fossil record, is that Ray is given to quoting experts out of context, with quotes about fossils in general substituting for actually discussing specific fossils or  their features  The most important fact, though, is probably that he does not have (or apparently want to have) any clear idea of what "species" means to a biologist or paleontologist.  He also doesn't seem to have any clear idea of what a "transitional form" ought to be, or what we ought to expect from the fossil record if evolution is true.


Ray, for example, cites a figure that there are 250,000 known fossil species.  Ray does not ask how many living species are known (at least seven times that number), or how many of those fossil species are identical to living species and how many are extinct, or how many fossil species are known from a single incomplete specimen.  If he did these things, he would be led to the conclusion that most living (and by extension presumably most extinct) species have no fossil record, which in turn implies that we ought to expect, if evolution is true, that the transitional fossil record will be full of gaps.

He notes that living things fall into distinct (allowing for some fuzziness around some species) species, rather than an unclassifiable continuum of living things, a point raised by Darwin in On the Origin of Species, though Ray doesn't mention Darwin's suggestion that this is because the intermediate forms died out, leaving only distinct, well-adapted groups.  And as noted, he tries not to discuss extinct intermediate forms.

Ray mentions only a few transitional fossils.  The hoax "Archaeoraptor" is mentioned as the only feathered dinosaur; Ray notes neither the existence of, e.g. Sinosauropteryx or Caudipteryx or Anchiornis (that last, to be sure, may have been discovered too late to feature in the book), nor does he note that "Archaeoraptor" is a composite of two real (and genuinely transitional) fossils, one of Microraptor (a genuine feathered dinosaur, almost but not quite so birdlike as Archaeopteryx) and one of Yanornis (a primitive bird with a toothed bill).  He likewise doesn't note that Archaeopteryx itself is, skeletally, so like non-bird coelurosaurs that one of its fossils was classified as the theropod Compsognathus until faint flight feather impressions were noted on the fossil.  Perhaps Ray is waiting for a dinosaur that has one modern bird wing on one side, and a scaled, clawed arm on the other, before he will acknowledge a "dino-bird transitional."

Ray mentions the famous horse series only in the context of a quote noting that its individual species appear and vanish without transitional forms linking them to other species.  This is of course an argument for punctuated equilibrium -- speciation over a few hundred or thousand generations in small, local populations.  It isn't an argument against speciation as such because we know (and most creationists accept) that speciation is possible.  Scientists have observed, e.g. the fruit fly Drosophilia melanogaster give rise to descendants of D. paulistorum.  Polar bears can not only interbreed with brown bears, but genetically are more similar to some brown bear populations than to other brown bear populations, convincing even most creationists that they did indeed evolve from brown bears.  "But they're still fruit flies and bears!" will of course be Ray's retort, but then, by the same token, all those distinct species of Mesohippus and other equid genera are just transitional forms between Eocene condylarths and modern horses.  We know that transitions between species are possible, and the species themselves form transitional series between genera and families within the hoofed mammals.

The discussion of the hominin fossil record is of a piece with the above.  Ray speaks of Homo erectus (well, actually of "Java man") as though the Trinil skull cap and thigh bone were the entirety of the H. erectus fossil record.  He speaks of Neanderthals as though the Old Man of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints were the only specimen, rather than one of a couple of hundred, including children and infants.  He gives space, of course, to Nebraska Man and Piltdown, but not to the Dmanisi skulls or Turkana Boy or ER1470.  There are no "ape men" if one insists that "ape men" like H. erectus are fully human and if one simply ignores more primitive hominines and australopithecines.

There's a brief mention of the Cambrian "explosion," with quotes from assorted scientists.  There is, of course, no mention of Precambrian fossils, or Ediacaran (late Precambrian) representatives of modern phyla like jellyfish and sponges, or the "small shelly fauna" that make up the first ten million years or so of the Cambrian fossil record -- bits and pieces of hard exoskeletons before full exoskeletons appear, as if by magic (or,alternatively, as if their body coverings evolved from hard bits and pieces to full shells and carapaces, showing off their full shapes better).  And from this cursory and extravagantly superficial discussion of the fossil record, Ray concludes that it contradicts the predictions of evolutionary theory (although, considering that he seems a bit vague on the whole concept of common descent, it's not clear that he has any real concept of what the theory predicts).

The fossil record supports common descent with modification.  Quote-mines about the fossil record support Ray Comfort, though not very strongly.

Is Evolution Scientific (Part Three)

Ray devotes three full chapters of How to Know God Exists to biological evolution, so the chapter actually titled "is evolution scientific" doesn't have much to say about evolution in the strict sense.  As for whether evolution is scientific, Ray's answer would seem to be that evolution can be tested, but that those tests cannot possibly show that it is true, or probably true, although they can  show (his case for the existence of God depends heavily on the nonexistence of common descent with modification) that it is false.

Ray segues from his discussion of abiogenesis to his discussion of "macroevolution" with a discourse on DNA and the insistence that it is like a written text, except vastly more complicated.  This section is enhanced with a couple of quote mines, one  from the former atheist philosopher Antony Flew (not, prior to his conversion to deism, noted as an expert in biochemistry, genetics, or abiogenesis research), and one from Francis Collins, who, of course, believes in God, thinks that science can inform faith, and -- perhaps most to the point here -- has no problem at all with common descent and does not seem to have one with naturalistic abiogenesis (after all, an omnipotent God could presumably create laws of nature that enable life to arise spontaneously from nonliving matter through natural causes).

There's a philosophically interesting side point here: William Paley, the classic 19th century ID theorist, noted that "contrivance" (specified complexity) is something human designers resort to because of their limitations: they cannot achieve the results they want through any simpler means.  An omnipotent Creator should not have to resort to immensely complex mechanisms to achieve His ends.  Paley argued that God did so anyway in order to impress us with His greatness, but then, an omnipotent Being shouldn't have to resort to vast complexity even to impress us.  The complexity of DNA (including such features as disabled genes, fragments of endogenous retroviruses, and large swaths of DNA that can be excised with no discernible effect on the developing embryo), argue for a naturalistic origin of genes and the genetic code, not a supernatural, unconstrained one.

Anyway, Ray deals directly with evolution only by dealing with DNA comparisons between humans and other primates, and dismisses them by noting that we should expect similar structures and functions to employ similar blueprints.  Now, this argument has some impressive adherents: Jerry Coyne, in Why Evolution is True, argues on the same grounds that aside from "junk" DNA, comparative genomics offers only the exact same support for common descent that comparative anatomy does.  But there are many proteins, and functional genes coding for those proteins, that perform the same function in different species despite differences in sequence.  Thus, e.g. cytochrome-c seems to do the exact same job in E. coli, elk, and elm trees, yet it is not identical in all these species, nor are the differences random, nor do they seem correlated to differences in habitat.  Humans and pigs, as Ray notes, have numerous similarities, especially in our omnivorous diets, yet our cytochrome-c is identical to that of chimps and not identical to that of pigs.

The important thing in these comparisons is not merely "similarities."  It is, first, that the similarities (and differences) fall into a consistent nested hierarchy, a "family tree" pattern that is what we would expect from common ancestry but not at all what we would expect from common design and separate creation.  It is, second, that many of these similarities don't seem to have any functional importance at all, from the numerous pseudogenes associated with smell that don't work in humans but are still homologous with working genes in other mammals, to endogenous retroviruses (viral DNA inserted into sperm or eggs and inherited by descendants) that we share with other primates (and more of them with chimps than with other apes, and more with other apes than with monkeys, etc.).   There are myriad similarities between humans and chimpanzees that aren't explicable in terms of common design and are explicable in terms of common ancestry.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Is Evolution Scientific (Part Two)

Ray's problem in dealing with the Big Bang is that to him, the Big Bang simply means "nothing created everything."  You will seek in vain, in chapter 3, for any mention of galactic redshifts, or the cosmic microwave background, or relative cosmic abundances of hydrogen and helium, or the expansion of space.    Ray has, in short, no interest in the evidence the Big Bang was actually devised to explain.   Note that Ray is not interested in arguing (as old earth creationists do) that God initiated the Big Bang; to Ray, the Big Bang is simply an atheistic creation story, not a reconstruction of the history of the universe.

The only question that matters to Ray is what came before the beginning, "nothing" or "God."  That there was no "before the beginning" -- that the universe might have existed, if not forever, then at least for all the time that has ever existed and hence not need a cause or explanation -- Ray does not consider.  He does insist that science has shown that the universe cannot have existed forever, though he does not say how science has shown this.  One might suppose that a science that cannot distinguish between a universe 13.8 billion years old and one 6000 years old (Ray has insisted that he has no idea how old the universe is, implying that science really has no idea either) might not be able to tell the difference between a finitely-old universe and an infinitely-old one, and might have missed some means of constantly cleaning up the accumulated entropy of an infinitely old universe (e.g. some variant of Hoyle and Gold's "steady state" universe).

Likewise, Ray does not consider the idea of some other universe as a precursor to or cause of our own: he does not consider even to mock or reject such ideas as a cyclic universe or some meta-universe giving rise to this one.    And of course he does not consider the possibility that we don't know, that the question is scientifically unanswerable, and that "it must have been a supernatural Creator" is one of the possibilities that science cannot demonstrate and that we cannot know.  He may have, here, a fairly large gap, but this falls short of "scientific proof" that only God could fill it.

Ray briefly mentions fine-tuning (the point that if dozens of physical constants did not have values falling within, apparently, a very narrow range of possible values, stars and galaxies and worlds could not form naturalistically and life could not evolve) but does not mention, even to mock, the idea of a multiverse where all possible combinations of physical constants exist and we simply find ourselves in the one where life like our own is possible.  Granted that in infinite number of variant universes is a rather extravagant hypothesis founded on a mere possibility suggested by inflationary Big Bang theories, when your alternative explanation for something is an infinite-personal Creator of unlimited power, pretty much any explanation looks at least as parsimonious.

And it does seem to me that if you're arguing that life and worlds did not form naturalistically -- that everything was specially created, quite possibly only several thousand years ago -- then the universe you're positing doesn't need fine-tuning, and its existence is something of a paradox: why should a Creator endow the universe with properties it needs for abiogenesis and evolution that, you claim, could never happen?

Is Evolution Scientific (Part One)

Chapter 3 of How to Know God Exists is a mess of confusions.  The very least of these is the conflation of the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and evolution into a single category Ray calls "evolution."  He does, after all, consider the three as more or less separate problems.

The real problem is that abiogenesis is the only one of these that Ray does even a half-passable job with.  As he notes, there isn't any detailed theory of abiogenesis.  Thus there's so much less for him to get wrong.  Yet he does his best to get wrong what he can.  He quotes Fred Hoyle's calculations for the likelihood of abiogenesis, without considering, first, that abiogenesis does not imply the assembly of a complete living cell from simple chemical precursors.  He considers neither Jack Szostak's theories on "RNA world" nor the success of University of Lancaster researchers in synthesizing RNA from simple molecules nor the success of Scripps Institute researchers in assembling strands of RNA that can self-replicate without the aid of other complex molecules.  He doesn't consider that there may be many possible combinations of amino acids that can do the job of a particular enzyme, or part of that job: Hoyle was computing the odds of getting a particular sort of modern cell, rather than any self-replicating system whose complexity could increase through reproduction, mutation, and natural selection.

Now, all of the above points that Ray fails to consider don't constitute, put together, a theory of abiogenesis or proof that it is possible.  So even if Ray had considered them, his conclusion would not have been affected, since, as in the previous chapter, Ray wants to prove God by finding gaps God could hide in.  Ray, confusing certainty with evidence, assumes that every question has an obvious answer, and have it today, and if the obvious answer isn't "naturalistic," it must be supernatural creation.  And again, one must wonder why today is so much more special than past times when scientists could not explain, e.g. how embryonic development occurred, or why it rained.  "Science doesn't know (yet)" is not "scientific proof of God."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Absurd in the Highest Degree (Part Two)

The chapter "Absurd in the Highest Degree" mounts a sustained "God of the gaps" argument, reinforced by an argument from personal incredulity.  Granted, given Ray's repeated notion of how evolution works -- eyes, ears, noses, hearts, lungs, and sexual reproduction evolved through the blind chance accumulation of random changes in every species (or "kind"), which had somehow managed to survive without them until all their organs had evolved -- incredulity is the appropriate response.

On the other hand, even if this were the current state of evolutionary theory, "we can't explain this now" does not logically imply "it must be supernatural in origin."  Too many phenomena, from lightning to epileptic seizures, that were once naturalistically inexplicable have turned out to have natural causes for that not to be obvious.  And it's been pointed out to Ray several times that natural selection is not random chance, and that hearts, lungs, livers, etc. did not evolve separately in kangaroos and Kirk Cameron.  Ray knows the phrases "common ancestor" and "natural selection," but seems resistant to actually understanding them.

Besides the eye, covered in part one, Ray focuses special attention on the ear and the nose.  Both bear vestiges of an evolutionary history, supported by the fossil record.

Ray notes that our nostrils are used for both breathing and smelling, though this is not true of most fish.  There is a Devonian fossil, Kenichthys, whose internal nostrils are intermediate between the typical fish position (in which the nostrils do not open to the interior of the mouth and hence could not be used to breathe) and the tetrapod position (in which they do open into the roof of the mouth).  Over half the olfactory receptor genes in humans -- the genes that enable us to detect and identify particular scents -- are pseudogenes, disabled versions of functional genes in other species.  If one is going to advance arguments from incredulity, perhaps a little incredulity would be in order to the idea of a Designer Who specially created us, decided that we didn't need a sense of smell as discriminating as a bloodhound's, and so rather than leave out these genes put them in and then crippled most of them.

Ray likewise notes the intricacy of the human ear, mentioning the three bones in the middle ear.  The "hammer" and "anvil" have an interesting embryology, beginning, developing, along with the jawbone, from one of the "brachial arches" (sometimes miscalled "gill slits") in the embryo.  This is unsurprising given the fossil record of the jaw and inner ear: these bones correspond to bones that formed the hinge of the jaw in early synapsids ("mammal-like reptiles"), and there are early mammaliformes and mammals in which these bones are diminished in size, no longer part of the jaw hinge, but not yet incorporated into the ear.  Again, a small amount of incredulity might be reserved for the idea of a Creator Who left these bones out of the ears of birds and reptiles and amphibians, and included them only in the ears of animals for which an evolutionary explanation of them could be conveniently discovered and supported.

Ray ends the chapter by arguing that we don't need faith to know that God exists, because the Bible declares that God's existence is obvious from evidence.  He doesn't really address the question of whether we need faith in order to assume that the Bible is correct on this point.   Ray addresses the reliability of the Bible in a later chapter, but first he has (and hence I have) several chapters worth of misunderstandings of evolution to get through.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Absurd in the Highest Degree (Part One)

The title of chapter 2 of How to Know God Exists might be considered a self-evaluation of the chapter itself: a description of evolution that (continuing a theme from chapter 1) ignores natural selection entirely and insists that evolutionary theory attributes every feature of living things to "blind chance."  From time to time I have the thought (it is not original with me) that Ray is engaged in an elaborate hoax, the grandest demonstration of Poe's Law ever attempted.  At least, I suspect that his understanding of evolution is not quite so abysmally bad as some of his statements suggest.

An example: Ray states that "this marvelous design [of the eye] occurs not just in humans, but in all the different creatures: horses, ants, dogs, whales, lions, flies, ducks, fish, etc.  Think about what the theory of evolution claims: the eyes of all these creatures slowly developed over millions of years.  Each of them was blind until all the parts miraculously came together and interrelated with all the others, because all the parts are needed for the eye to function."

Does Ray really believe this is an accurate statement about evolution?  All of these animals except for flies are vertebrates (and if Ray has ray-finned fish in mind when he writes "fish," they are all gnathostome vertebrates).  According to evolutionary theory, all inherited box-camera eyes from a common ancestor; their last blind ancestor was Precambrian.  Flies, for their part, inherited eyes from the insect common ancestor (which in turn inherited eyes from an arthropod common ancestor.  Nothing very like a whale or a fly ever existed with partially-formed eyes.

On the other hand, some living species do have eyes that are "partially formed" with respect to other eyes in their phylum.  Cephalopods (octopuses and squids) have box-camera eyes superficially similar to the vertebrate type, but the chambered nautilus has a simpler eye without a lens.  Still simpler eyes, mere cups or funnels (retinas without lenses or proper apertures) exist in limpets.  Structurally similar eyes occur in the lancelet or amphioxus, a primitive chordate similar to the common ancestor of vertebrates.  Eyes -- functional for their possessors -- exist in forms ranging from a tiny light-sensitive cluster of nerve endings (the planarian) to highly complex box camera or compound eyes in vertebrates and some trilobites respectively.

But what raises questions in my mind is this: Ray later turns to the "schizochroal" or "optical double" compound lenses of some trilobite eyes to marvel over their elegance and complexity, and notes "you've probably been led to believe that the first simple creatures had simple eyes, and that as creatures slowly evolved their eyes evolved along with them."  Here Ray seems to have a faint inkling that evolutionary theory does not posit that whales and lions were not wandering around the Cambrian seafloor with one or two random components of the eye attached to their skulls.  Still, he nowhere mentions common ancestors or common descent, and perhaps he has no idea that evolutionary theory holds such ideas.

Note, by the way, that trilobites are not the "first simple creatures;" they appear about 25 million years after the start of the Cambrian, and somewhat longer after the first bilaterians in the Precambrian Ediacarans.  Nilsson and Pelger did an infamous computer simulation that seems to indicate that a box-camera eye could evolve from a small light-sensitive patch in a few hundred thousand generations; they did not consider compound eyes, but thirty million years is enough time for a lot of trilobite generations.

Chapter One: Are Atheists Smarter Than Most?

Ray starts out How to Know God Exists with some self-deprecating humor, describing himself (with examples) as a "klutz" and inviting us to wonder why we should heed the opinion, on a question of such high import as the existence of God, of someone who apparently can't perform simple household chores without risking death or maiming.   My own problem, of course, is wondering why we should trust someone who assumes that "chance" is the only possible alternative to "design" as an explanation for biological complexity and adaption.  Ray's answer to either question is that the answer really, really matters to us ... which doesn't, of course, have any terribly obvious bearing on the question of whether his particular answer is true.

Note that "design" is not just Ray's answer to why we have eyes and ears and livers and (presumably) why we plantaris tendons and GULO pseudogenes and erector pili muscles.  It's his explanation for why we have refraction (and hence rainbows), gravity (and hence oceans and air -- since he's arguing that the planet itself was intelligently created, he doesn't consider gravity an explanation for why we have, e.g. planets and stars in the first place.

Ray repeats some familiar arguments in this chapter, with some familiar problems.  He argues that we wouldn't expect a Coke can to form spontaneously, metal sheeting and labeling assembling spontaneously from simple molecules, and therefore shouldn't expect a banana or the person who eats one to originate that way.  He doesn't really consider the implications of the fact that Coke cans are manufactured and cannot reproduce themselves (so cannot evolve by mutation and natural selection), whereas bananas and humans had ancestors and do experience evolution.  He complains (or at least notes) that this argument was mocked, but doesn't seem to quite grasp why it was mocked (one hint: bananas themselves, as we know them, are results of human selective breeding).

In other cases, he does incorporate responses to arguments he's presented before.  He notes, when making the "a building implies a builder, hence creation implies a Creator," that we have indeed seen architects and building contractors and carpenters and plumbers, and haven't actually seen a Being capable of making buildings (or bananas) out of nothing by sheer intellect, with no physical mechanism.  But he moves blithely and confidently on: even a stone-age tribesman, he argues, would see that skyscrapers were manufactured and designed things.  This might well be the case, though it would still imply an analogy between making mud huts and making skyscrapers; this would seem to me to strengthen the case for ascribing biological complexity and diversity to observed processes like reproduction, inheritance, mutation, selection, and drift.
Publish Post
Ray argues that we have no reason to ascribe a cow to evolutionary processes if we can't, ourselves, make a cow (out of nothing, furthermore).  But his hypothetical stone-age tribesman could not make a skyscraper, out of nothing or even out of dirt and vegetation.  That does not mean that the skyscrapers were not made by beings very like the builders and designers that the tribesman had known.  By the same token, our inability to explain or duplicate every detail of naturalistic origins does not imply that we are wrong to seek explanations in terms of observed, natural causes, from gravity to natural selection.

Ray offers one further argument in this introductory chapter (of which, to be sure, fully developed arguments should not be expected; that's what the rest of the book is for): atheists are a minority.  In much of the world, even people who accept evolution and a natural origin for stars and worlds are a minority.  How likely is it that non-creationists are right when so much of the world is wrong?  Of course, this argument has its problems: four hundred years ago, heliocentrists were a minority, and ten or fifteen centuries before that, people who thought the Earth was ball-shaped rather than flat were a minority.  Evidence, not mere numbers giving uninformed assent, is relevant here.

Ray varies the appeal to the wisdom of the masses with an appeal to the wisdom of geniuses: Einstein, he assures us, believed in God.  Not necessarily a personal God, not a God Who inspired an inerrant Holy Bible, and especially not a God Who judged and forgave us, but Something that Einstein thought was not quite the same as the universe itself (Einstein did not want to call himself a pantheist).  Oddly, Ray doesn't present us with Einstein's arguments for God (or perhaps this is not so odd, as Einstein didn't actually present such arguments), but appeals to the authority of cosmologists as he appeals to the authority of popular opinion.

First Post

I've started this blog to post chapter-by-chapter reviews of Ray Comfort's book How to Know God Exists.  Ray was kind enough to send me a free copy, and I decided to return the favor by giving it a detailed review.  On a first quick perusal, the book seems to consist of several chapters arguing for the existence of a Creator based on the argument from design, with additional chapters trying to argue that this must be specifically the Christian God.

From time to time, as opportunity and inclination arises, I will post comments on and reviews of various other things I find on the web or read.