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Skeptical Sunday: Our Impossible Nature

August 30, 2009

It’s been some time since I had the chance to write much of anything here, much less wade into the quagmire of bad science and shoddy logic that is The Case for a Creator. But I’m doing my best to take the backlog of “stuff I should have finished by now” and making that, you know, happen. I’ve got a 60-hour-a-week-minimum gig coming down the pipes for September so I can’t guarantee it’ll happen during that month, but I’m going to do my best to get through it ASAP.

I could save you a lot of time reading this book, however, and other books and pamphlets and websites by apologists all relaying the same half-baked pablum, with a very simple summary of their argument. Any apologist supposedly using scientific evidence to support the assertion that a deity exists is arguing a premise and conclusion that can be summed up in three words:

Nature is impossible.

Whether the specific evidence at hand is the so-called Big Bang, DNA, human consciousness, the majesty of a tree, the mystery of consciousness, the argument is essentially the same: it is impossible for this to occur naturally. Therefore God.

This is a rather baffling stance to take, since from the standpoint of simple, dispassionate observation these things are not only possible for nature, but confirmed. We know that nature can accomplish them because we can see nature accomplishing them, or we see the evidence that nature has accomplished them, without evidence of any outside assistance.

Now, the case can be made — and correctly — that knowing the natural processes by which these things occur does not inherently disprove the involvement (and, implied, existence) of a god. Sure, maybe your god of choice is the one who makes the acorn into the mighty oak, or hurls the lightning to the earth. But the fact that acorns, oaks, and lightning exist does not mean that your god exists.

Let’s say that I believe that cow’s milk comes from fairies that live in the cow’s udder, converting the cow’s food into milk and sustenance for calf and man alike. Then we discover the perfectly natural biochemical processes that convert the cow’s diet into drinkable milk.

I now have two choices:

  • Accept that there is a previously-unknown but perfectly natural process by which this “miracle” occurs, or
  • Declare that the fairies are simply invisible, scientifically undetectable, and the biochemical processes we can detect are simply the mechanism by which the fairies do their work.

Now, if I chose to argue point #2, you can’t necessarily say I’m wrong. There could be invisible fairies in a cow’s udder turning grass into milk, via the natural biochemical processes in a cow’s stomach. But the fact that milk exists is not evidence that my fairies exist.

Once we have an understanding of the natural processes that occur in a cow’s udder, the objective fact is that there is no inherent need for invisible fairies to do that work, as nature can do it on its own. And so, in spite of evidence to the contrary, if I wish to continue arguing for my fairies, I must declare that nature, working on its own, is impossible.

And therein lies my error: I’m not starting from the evidence and forming a conclusion. I’m starting from a conclusion and either distorting or discarding the evidence to suit it. The evidence doesn’t “point toward fairies.” I want to believe in fairies and so I perform mental and logistical gymnastics to find ways that fairies could still be involved in the evidence as it is collected. And despite the fact that fairies admittedly could be considered the invisible hand behind the milk, what I fail to present is a single reason that fairies should be given consideration as an answer to the question.

This is not the scientific method. It is the antithesis of science. It is dogmatism.

The subtitle of CFAC, “A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God,” is more accurately phrased as “An Apologist Lists Ways In Which the Presumption of a God’s Existence Can Be Partially Retrofitted and/or Reconciled With Scientific Evidence.”

The final part of an apologist’s argument, the “…therefore God” is always a logical leap from what came before, seeming to lack at least a couple steps of reasoning that would lead an objective observer, one not already predisposed to answer a question that way, to take that path of reasoning. But don’t expect an apologist to show his work bridging that gap, because he probably hasn’t done any. He jumped that shark before his argument even began.

So their argument is ultimately: God must exist or Nature is impossible -> Nature is possible -> God must exist.

You see how it starts and ends at the same point? It’s not even a circular argument, it’s a Möbius argument, a twisted, one-sided argument that folds over on itself and ends exactly where it began, getting us nowhere.

I’ve said many times that I’m perfectly open to the idea that a deity may exist. But every argument I’ve ever heard requires me to already assume God exists before the argument can lead in that direction. It makes sense when that’s the assumption you do make, which is why Christians (including me, at one point) see sense in this nonsense. But to convince a non-Christian, you’ve got to do better than that.

Nonetheless, lest I be accused of attacking a straw man, I will get through CFAC as quickly, but completely, as possible. I’ve got seven chapters left and considering each one takes 2-3 posts it’s mathematically likely this will spill over to the new year. But I hope to be done with it, and other projects, before I turn 27. Consider it an early resolution for 2010.

  1. ptheisen permalink

    Of course you are right, anyone attempting to prove that God exists by pointing to something that can be explaind by purely natural causes. I’m curious how you would answer someone who points to rational thought as something that could not have evolved through entirely natural processes?

    (The argument I’m referring to is the one C.S. Lewis makes in his book Miracles. If you happen to be familiar with it, he puts it far more eloquently than I can. If you aren’t I’ll do my best to represent it accurately. I’m just hoping to hear both sides of the issue.)

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      I am generally familiar with the argument from rational thought/human consciousness, but not Lewis’ specific iteration of it. If you could summarize the argument as you understand it, I would prefer to address the version of the argument you do find compelling, rather than possibly addressing a different one that you do not.

      Although it is perhaps worth mentioning that there is an entire chapter of CFAC devoted to some form of this argument. (Chapter 10: The Evidence of Consciousness.)

    • I do not see human thought/consciousness as a particular strong point for the case of a creator.
      As any brain expert can testify ,performing a serious lobotomy or brain surgery will affect deeply the thought process of the human specimen by rather simple methods of slicing the cortex. So there is little of human thought that can be said to be “ethereal” , as a matter of fact we can nowadays map brain activity to treat and suppress certain addictions and mental illnesses. And taking it to the extreme ,no brain=no thought, even if you maintain the patient “alive” by use of machines. Hence in the future, the brain (like any other organ) could possibly be replaced by a quantum computer just as we replace a heart for an artificial one or an arm for a robotic one.
      On a side note the central role of human consciousness deeply disturbed Feynman about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, press forward by Niels Bohr. So he proposed the sum over paths method.
      The day we finally understand how the brain “works” in detail, AI will be fairly easy to achieve.
      For me, the only part that human thought plays out in this discussion is in the in the application of the anthropic principle (you need rational beings like humans to have a discussion about God, in an universe full of ants the question never arises).

  2. I don’t disagree with you.

    But I’ve wondered for some time–why do you preach secularism?

    I’m as much of an atheist as you, but I don’t try to convince other people to be atheists. I leave the evangelizing to the evangelicals.

    Granted, your secular posts are almost always well thought out arguments. I just wonder why you feel compelled to write them, as you don’t seem to be questioning your own secularism.

    • My feeling is that Michael , being such a rational and seeker of the true “truth” guy I perceive him to be, is not only questioning the “verasity” of the “science” of people trying to prove God(which incidentally I find annoying when someone misquotes true science to make blatantly false religious claims) , but he might be also questioning all the moralist derivations that spur from people trying to “show” you that there is a God.
      Religious pseudo-preachings that end up telling you that the truth can only be found in “the book” and are used by right wing caveman to advance their “Old Testament” agenda.
      I prefer free thinkers (Jesus was one and my feeling is that he would be appalled at the turn organized religion took and the atrocities committed on his name).
      That said I will tell you that I believe God exists and is called “The Universe”. (Here is where you can cross me out as a nut case).
      But bare with me. The attributes of God among other things are: To posses all knowledge or sum of it, creator of life, omnipresence or being “everywhere”, and being eternal. All these in my view are better suited for “the universe” than for any old guy with a beard sitting in a cloud. And the best part is that you do not need science or religion to prove it. Is right there in front of you, or better , is also “in” you, and you are a part of “it”, a part of God.
      That is why ,Michael, I do not call “the universe” simply “matter”. In this simple view I can encompass a simple moral rule, “The Golden one”.. Do onto others….
      None of this is particularly original I might add, there is a bit of Oriental philosophy in it, distilled by my practical and scientifically inclined mind, and my complex feelings that do not let me so easy give the reader the opportunity to call me and reduced me to the dismissive concept of “atheist” (like assuming I don’t feel anything and I do not think anything and I do not have any kind of code of ethics). Connotation I do not agree with.
      In a sense is regression to times when people had the SUN or The Nyle River for gods.
      But the difference is that today many aspects of the God Universe can be understood , and is wonderful and dangerous and full of suprises, and infinite………

      • dorkmanscott permalink

        Here’s where you run into trouble:

        The attributes of God among other things are: To posses all knowledge or sum of it, creator of life, omnipresence or being “everywhere”, and being eternal.

        Possessing knowledge implies — even requires — a consciousness, a mind. As you said in your other reply to this very entry, without a brain there is no thought. The universe has no brain, no thought, and thus fails to possess a fundamental attribute of what is referred to as a “god.”

        If you do not believe that the universe is conscious, What do you gain by stating you believe “God is the universe?” All you manage to do is dilute the meaning of the word “God” so as to make it both valueless in terms of expressing a unique concept (as I said on Twitter, we already have a word for the universe: “universe”), and entirely unlike what the word is used to mean by pretty much everyone else.

        I don’t think we need to justify our capacity for ethics with pseudomystical woo. There are plenty of grounded reasons to do so that don’t involve redefining terms beyond recognition.

        • Lisandro Di MArco permalink

          By universe possesing sum of knowledge I am more refering to the total of the entropic information contained in it (rather than a consciousness thing)wich incedentally as Stephen Hawking candidly explains in “A Brief Story of Time” has to do with the “arrow of time” and also goes on a brief dissertation of the fate of information contained in matter that falls in black holes.
          And the marvels I talk about are rather concrete like supernovas or nuclear processes in the sun ( I am a big fan of NASA and space exploration) and I never said I believe in anything mystical and I complete agree there should be a logical explanation for everything abeit sometimes so complex that may escape the limits of our present human understanding. (Understanding which by the way will dramatically improve when we decipher the brain and we are able to integrate computers with human brains creating powerful thinking cyborgs)
          So yes, in the conventional definition of GOD, I agree there is none.
          I was just pointing out that is a bit unfair that people imagine deities to have some attributes that could be so easly given to something more concrete like the “universe”.
          I know Michael, I am all over the map. I hope you it does not annoy you.

    • dorkmanscott permalink

      I’m a little confused by your question, particularly the last sentence. The implication seems to be that I ought not to write a post unless I am unsure of what I’m trying to say, or unless I’m questioning the conclusion. This seems like an odd and counterproductive approach to blogging, which for me at least is generally an expression of what I do think.

      I do agree with you that the focus on secularism is too narrow and it was my mistake for pigeonholing myself so specifically. It’s for that reason that I’ve chosen instead to focus on the broader topic of skepticism, which encompasses secularism but is not exclusively related to it.

      As for my desire to focus on fundamental concepts of critical thinking, stepping outside of religion for a moment, just look at what’s going on in the American healthcare debate right now. Logic and reason are not considered virtue in modern America, and I think that’s wrong, and I see no reason that I shouldn’t say so.

      • Ironically, it was your last sentence that cleared up my questions.

        I was confused because for a long time you seemed to be preaching secularism, attempting to convert the religious to atheism. I couldn’t understand why an atheist would do that, as evangelism was something that was generally characteristic of being religious, and many atheists I know–including myself–tend to think that it’s best to believe what you believe and let others do the same.

        I was a follower of your blog before you made the switch to wordpress, and only recently rediscovered you. So I didn’t catch the switch from secularism to skepticism. I like the wider focus.

        Sorry for the confusion.

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