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Secular Sunday: Nobody believes in Zeus anymore…

January 18, 2009

Last week, toward the end of my analysis of the latest section of CFC, I spoke of something in quick and dismissive passing, when it actually deserves more focus. So before I move on today (or instead of doing so, we’ll see how long this ends up being), I want to go back to it.

Strobel makes the case, sort of, that the abiogenesis of life is nothing short of miraculous. This has been addressed by better and more intelligent writers — than myself, let alone Strobel — such as Richard Dawkins, who points out (and I’m paraphrasing here): if the odds of life as we know it arising on any planet, the odds of all the qualities of a planet aligning perfectly to support such life, are one in a billion billion, then out of a billion billion planets, it is not only probable but mathematically certain that on one planet, life will arise. If only one planet in the universe has life, then we are the one in whatever number of planets there are — those are our odds.

In an infinite universe, it’s not miraculous that life arose here. In an infinite universe, it would actually be miraculous if life as we define it didn’t arise somewhere. (Of course, if that were the case, there would be nobody to marvel at the miracle.)

But that’s not what I want to address (as I said, Dawkins among others has covered it much better). What I want to address is the following quote, attributed to Walter Bradley, “origin-of-life expert:”

If there isn’t a natural explanation and there doesn’t seem to be the potential of finding one, then I believe it’s appropriate to look at a supernatural explanation…I think that’s the most reasonable inference based on the evidence [page 42].

No. And no. And NO.

I need to be very clear about this, because this is extremely important. Ultimately this is the primary failure of this entire book, the foundational misunderstanding upon which Strobel is building his eponymous Case:

Science.

Does not.

Work that way.

To make it easily apparent why I have such a strong objection to Bradley’s statement, let me rephrase, to have it say explicitly what Bradley is only implying:

If something happens that we don’t understand, and its reasons for happening are not immediately apparent, we should feel free to make up any explanation that suits us.

As I said, this is the fundamental departure point, the fundamental mistake Strobel and others like him make. If they don’t know the answer, they make it up. Or, conversely, they decide on the answer they will choose to accept before even bothering to look at the evidence.

Any scientist will tell you that many things occur in the world that science can’t answer. And scientists will have their hypotheses for the reasons that these events occur, based on a sort of triangulation of the observations that they’ve made (“because A, and B, and C, it seems to make sense that D is occurring”).

Through repeated experimentation they will either verify the hypothesis — in which case it eventually becomes the accepted explanation, and is considered something we “know” — or falsify the hypothesis — in which case they will begin searching for a new answer to test.

What they absolutely do not do is fabricate a “supernatural” and untestable “reason” that has no relationship to the evidence given, nor do they force themselves to adhere to a predetermined “explanation” for new information.

A true scientist is not afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

And saying that, as a corollary, is not the same as saying, “No one will never know.”

Bradley’s attitude is the opposite of scientific inquiry — the death of scientific inquiry. Pick a scientific discovery of significance. Say electricity. Or antibiotics.

Until the 17th century, human beings had little to no awareness of the microscopic world. We didn’t know about bacteria, which means that we didn’t know how people got sick. Following Bradley’s exact line of thought, those who came down with illnesses were thought to be either cursed by God/the gods, or possessed by evil spirits. There wasn’t a natural explanation, and there wasn’t the potential of finding one. So they pursued the supernatural explanation.

Except that there was a natural explanation, and eventually we found it, because despite people like Bradley, who were happy with their comforting-but-completely-unjustified “answer,” some people kept looking.

Admittedly, even attempts to be “naturalistic” can and have been wrong, too. Humourism, for example, was the dominant non-supernatural theory in medicine for nearly the entirety of Western history. A theory which has now, by modern medicine, been completely discredited.

But the important component in this example is that even despite believing that they had the answer, despite having held to and operated under this theory for 18 centuries1, scientists kept looking to make sure. And when they started to make observations that humourism couldn’t answer, to create alternate hypotheses that had a higher success rate of explaining and predicting related occurrences, the long-held theory of humourism was eventually discarded.

A true scientist is not afraid to say, “I was wrong.”

This is the strength of the scientific method, the reason that the scientific method is the only reliable method for determining objective truth about reality. Science is not emotional, it is not entrenched, it is continuously adapting — indeed, science is constantly evolving. Scientific discoveries in one discipline have a ripple effect across our entire understanding of our universe. If a paradigm for understanding the universe cannot accommodate objective observation, that paradigm must be discarded.

In ancient Greece Bradley would have said that obviously Zeus was the source of lightning, because there was no natural explanation for it and no potential for finding one. And at the time he would have been right that there was no natural explanation for lightning and no potential (again, at the time) for finding one. But now we know exactly the natural explanation for lightning, and while that doesn’t automatically mean Zeus isn’t the one making nature work that way, that’s just a case of pushing the “Zeus” answer one step back. Not because there’s evidence for the Zeus answer, but because its adherents can’t deal with letting go.

As you all know, nobody seriously believes in Zeus anymore. And yet intelligent design is exactly the same thing. They say God did it. Once you show how nature did it, it goes back a stage to “God made nature do it like that,” with no evidence to back that up, or even indicate a reason to think so. They call that lack of evidence (aka ignorance) faith, and they are inexplicably proud of it.

People like Bradley are afraid to say, “I don’t know.” People like Bradley are afraid to say “I was wrong.” People like Bradley choose a comforting answer because it is comforting. Not because it is appropriate, correct, or even warranted. People like Bradley are not proper scientists.

Because science doesn’t work that way.

As I thought might happen, this post got long enough that I think it’s enough for today. But it was important. One of the reasons supernatural explanations are so compelling is that they’re easy to communicate, and sometimes more intuitive than the natural explanation. One sentence of creationist claptrap takes paragraphs and paragraphs to answer in a way that is both relatively accurate and intellectually accessible to people who are not scientists.2 (Not to mention the challenge of making sure I understand it right, not being a scientist myself.)

Now I can simply point back to this post, or even use the acronym SDWTW, and you will know what I mean without having to spend paragraphs explaining myself. (Even given that, by the end of this whole endeavor, I may very well have written more words about the book than Strobel did in it.)

More CFC next week.


  1. A common defense of religion is that its longevity and tenacity somehow give it credence. How could a wrong idea survive so many centuries? My answer to that, as with humourism, is simply “because people didn’t know any better.”
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  3. One of the creationist tactics in “debates” with qualified scientists — and apparently one of Strobel’s tactics in this book — is to rattle off in quick succession half a dozen or more wholly-incorrect but succinctly-stated talking points. Their opponent becomes flustered by the assault, frustrated by being unable to communicate the answers clearly in the allotted time (and/or by the ridiculous nature of the claims), or winds up forgetting or not being allowed to answer one of the points, which makes it appear to the audience that s/he had no answer to give. That’s why I’m taking my time going through this, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.
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24 Comments
  1. Carniphage permalink

    One reason that it is tough to dismantle religious arguments is that theists don’t like statements that are falsifiable. They seem them as fragile, vulnerable to being broken.

    Scientists prefer to deal with falsifiable statements. It means the ideas have expiry dates which run-out if evidence comes along and breaks them.

    The flowchart is funny. But theists can’t always ignore the contrary evidence. They start of ignoring it, move on to censoring it, but after a while they are forced to accommodate it into the faith.

    The catholics eventually had to acknowledge the Earth was not at the centre of the solar system.

    The catholics now agree with Darwin on Evolution!

    Funnily enough, theists never notice that religion’s “universal truths” are
    1) Extremely local
    2) Get changed more often than the pope’s hat.

    C.

  2. Drew Mazanec permalink

    Do you believe that the lack of supernatural intervention in this world is a necessary truth or a contingent truth?

  3. Carniphage permalink

    We can imagine another world that has bona-fide cloud-livin’, bolt tossin’ gods.
    But they’d be part of the nature of that world. Exotic, but not supernatural.

    C.

  4. Drew Mazanec permalink

    What is the difference between the exotic and the supernatural?

  5. Dorkman permalink

    Exotic is natural. I.E. part of nature. I.E. their effects are tangible, measurable, and demonstrable.

    The supernatural, by definition, is outside of “nature.” But the only way something could be outside of nature is if it is not tangible, measurable, or demonstrable.

    So as I said in the post, “supernatural” in the context of scientific inquiry is essentially synonymous with “imaginary.”

    If something has a tangible, measurable, demonstrable effect, it may be mysterious, even unknown, something one could call rare or “exotic,” but it would be considered a natural force, not a supernatural intervention.

    In an interventionary world, BTW, scientific inquiry and such things as the laws of physics would be impossible to categorize, as the intervention of a god could cause things to behave unpredictably and erratically.

  6. TheGamut permalink

    Heh. “Natural”.

    Humans are so unnatural that Human Nature is an oxymoron. 😛

  7. Carniphage permalink

    Dorkman, you said:

    In an interventionary world, BTW, scientific inquiry and such things as the laws of physics would be impossible to categorize, as the intervention of a god could cause things to behave unpredictably and erratically.

    I think that is a quite illuminating statement. Especially if you turn it around.

    Whenever the universe spits-up some difficult-to-understand pheonomena, like thunderbolts, or injustice or Cosmogeneis or Sarah Palin…. Then it’s much easier to explain away the awkward phenomenon as evidence of a deity in action.

    It’s the all-purpose-explanation-for-difficult-stuff TM.

    Now that science explains so much, evidence of divine action is now relegated to low-grade mysteries. Such as images of the virgin Mary miraculously printed on toasted cheese sandwiches

    C.

  8. Dorkman permalink

    Drew: I’d like to answer your question but I honestly don’t understand it. You’ll need to explain it more fully.

  9. Carniphage permalink

    He meant:

    “Is the notion of supernatural intervention false in just this world or in all possible worlds.”

    Not sure why he choses to use such obscure philosophical language.

    C.

  10. Dorkman permalink

    Well, I suppose that depends on the definition of the terms. If something interacts with the natural world, then one would be inclined to consider that something a natural, not supernatural, agent.

    Defined that way, the existence of the supernatural on a semantic level is impossible, since for something to be said to exist it must be manifest in its effect on the natural world, which thereby makes it natural. So in a world where deities regularly or even rarely intervened, those interventions would be considered part of the natural order of things.

    If by supernatural you merely mean “something that doesn’t follow the rules as we have come to understand them, and/or can cause other things to violate said rules,” then I would say that it is entirely possible for the “supernatural” to exist in any world, including ours, but to say that some such thing exists requires evidence of its existence.

  11. Drew Mazanec permalink

    necessary falsehood: something that is logically contradictory (like a square circle)

    necessary truth: something that is true, because its falsehood would be self-contradicting (like 2+2=5)

    contingent truth: something that is true, but its falsehood is logically possible (my shirt is blue)

    contingent falsehood: something that is false, but its truth is logically possible (there is a planet between Earth and Venus)

    If the idea of a supernatural entity performing an action that affects the physical world (i.e. moving a table) is logically incoherent, then you will need to check if your definition of the word “supernatural” differs from Strobel’s, because it would differ from mine.

  12. Drew Mazanec permalink

    Haha. You zipped in and posted before I could finish my last post.

    So I guess the next question is:

    What is meant by God? What is your definition, and what do you think is Strobel’s definition?

  13. Dorkman permalink

    I’d rather not address what I think Strobel’s definition is. I would prefer he say what it is, and I can answer that. I can only answer the claims he makes.

    Likewise, my answer to “what is a God” by necessity must itself be a question: “Which god are we talking about?” What the Greeks meant by a god is different than what the Norse meant is different from Judeo-Christian mythology.

    In addition, the character of the Judeo-Christian God is defined on almost a case-by-case basis — some believers seem to consider him a loving grandfather or cosmic Santa Claus, others consider him a sort of benevolent dictator, and still others seem to consider him a sort of malevolent tyrant, but one who fortunately hates all the same people and things as those who believe in him do, so that’s okay.

    When discussing God, there is no boilerplate definition. The question that I’m trying to get in the practice of using to preface a direct conversation with a believer is: what do you believe, and why do you believe it?

  14. Dorkman permalink

    Also, defining things that act contrary to expected rules as “supernatural” is wrong. It doesn’t mean that they are supernatural, only that either the observations, or the rules, are flawed.

    Otherwise, just about everything in quantum mechanics is “supernatural.”

  15. Carniphage permalink

    I did my best to imagine a world with a supernatural component. A kind of layer cake.

    There’d be a natural layer, a supernatural layer and then perhaps a super super natural layer on top of that.

    Metagod – creates the supernatural universe including god – and then god creates the natural universe including man. And then man creates the Sims.

    As a kind of philosophical joke, I can imagine this world. But I don’t think it counts as a “possible world”.

    Even if could accept such a model it is incompatible with the religious model. Why would an omniscient and omnipotent meta-man sit on the sidelines and tut when the outcomes in nature went against him.

    I am pretty sure Will Wright never gets too upset when the Sims misbehave. Nor does he demand that the little digital fellows constantly express gratitude for their humble existence.

    C.

  16. Drew Mazanec permalink

    If not “supernatural” then what term would you use to describe “something that doesn’t follow the rules as we have come to understand them, and/or can cause other things to violate said rules”?

  17. Carniphage permalink

    The right term would be “anomalous”.

    If something occurs that is outside our understanding. Then it’s reasonable to assume we have a little more to learn about the universe.

    Primitive man ascribed all anomalies to be supernatural. But that’s because they couldn’t read.

    C.

  18. Drew Mazanec permalink

    Would the quote on page 42 make more sense if it read:

    “If there isn’t a standard explanation and there doesn’t seem to be the potential of finding one, then I believe it’s appropriate to look at an anomalous explanation…I think that’s the most reasonable inference based on the evidence”

  19. Carniphage permalink

    What on Earth is meant by “there doesn’t seem to be the potential of finding one” ?

    It implies that the Universe is a totally understood entity. And anything that does not fit with that understanding must instantly be flagged up as supernatural.

    What utter and supreme arrogance!

    How about this sentence.

    “If there isn’t a standard explanation and we don’t have the courage and intelligence to look for one, then I think it acceptable to call it a day and blame an invisible tree spirit. That’s the most reasonable inference based on the evidence”

    C.

  20. Dorkman permalink

    Would the quote on page 42 make more sense if it read:

    “If there isn’t a standard explanation and there doesn’t seem to be the potential of finding one, then I believe it’s appropriate to look at an anomalous explanation…I think that’s the most reasonable inference based on the evidence”

    No, because you can’t have an “anomalous explanation.”

    When we were talking about how what you would call “supernatural” we would call “anomalous,” we were talking about observations.

    An anomalous explanation would be completely worthless, because it wouldn’t really be an explanation of anything except one event at one time. An explanation seeks to explain not how A can be true, but how A can be true in light of B and C being true.

    If A cannot be true while B and C are also true, then it may be that our understanding of A, B, or C is incorrect and needs to be adjusted.

    An “anomalous explanation” is really just “an excuse.” An excuse not to relate it to what we know or do the intellectual rigor involved in actually explaining the observation(s).

  21. Drew Mazanec permalink

    Didn’t you say that at least in some possible world, maybe even ours, there would exist an event whose best explanation includes:

    something that doesn’t follow the rules as we have come to understand them, and/or can cause other things to violate said rules caused this event.

    If this is not an anomalous explanation, then what do you call it?

  22. Dorkman permalink

    I would call it an overlong way of saying “I don’t know what caused this, we need to look into it.”

    That may eventually lead to an explanation, it may even necessitate a complete change of “the rules as we have come to understand them,” but it is not in itself an explanation. That’s the question, not the answer.

    And it’s worth noting that even if the reasons that said event happened never become clear, it is not valid to say “God did it” in the absence of any other explanation, when the existence of God hasn’t been established. Might as well say “Fairies did it” for all the evidence there is for either assertion.

    If you don’t know the answer, then the answer is “I don’t know.”

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Secular Sunday: Case for a Creator: Chapter 3, Part 4 « Dorkman’s Blog
  2. Secular Sunday: Case for a Creator, Chapter 4 « Dorkman’s Blog

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