Awake November 2010

Atheists are the main topic in the latest edition of the flagship Jehovah’s Witness magazine, “Awake!” (Download it from here)

Well, let’s see what they have to say.

The opening chapter, cynically titled ‘ATHEISTS ON A CRUSADE’ is a short appraisal of the circumstances surrounding the rise of what certain commentators have dubbed the ‘New Atheism’:

Religion has aided the cause of the new atheists, as people have become fed up with the religious extremism, terrorism, and conflict plaguing the world. “Religion poisons everything,” says one leading atheist. Moreover, that ‘poison’ is said to include religious beliefs in general, not just extremist views. Core dogmas, say the new atheists, must be exposed, abandoned, and replaced by rationality and reason. People must be unafraid to speak frankly about the “mountains of life destroying gibberish” found in the Bible and the Koran, writes atheist Sam Harris. “We can no longer afford the luxury of . . . political correctness.”

Sam Harris is absolutely right. Indeed religion has been protected from scrutiny for millennia, and it is high time it be discussed as openly and impartially as any other matter is. Religion should no longer be off limits to critical scrutiny. But this debate is so 2004! Political correctness with regards to religion vanished a long time ago, and even here in Uganda, religion is receiving the critical scrutiny it richly deserves.

The second chapter is called ‘HAS SCIENCE DONE AWAY WITH GOD?’ which looks into the issue of whether given what is presently known from science, a belief in a ‘God’ is justified. The highlights are Anthony Flew’s reasons for conversion from atheism, and the question of the laws of nature.

Anthony Flew is a favourite among Christians, as Exhibit A for famous atheists who have renounced atheism. Indeed he was a famous philosopher, and engaged in many notable debates with Christian philosophers. Not only that, he also authored several influential philosophical works. The Awake! article gleefully narrates Flew’s conversion account:

For 50 years, British philosopher Antony Flew was highly respected as an atheist by his peers. “Theology and Falsification,” his 1950 paper, “became the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the [20th] century.” In 1986 Flew was called “the most profound of the contemporary critics of theism” (the belief in God or gods). So it came as a great shock to many when, in 2004, Flew announced that he had changed his viewpoint. What made Flew change his mind? In a word, science.

So what was the science that persuaded Flew that a ‘God’ must exist?

A Wikipedia entry on this conversion captures many of his reasons:

Flew also said: "My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species … [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms."

In another letter to Carrier of 29 December 2004 Flew went on to retract his statement, writing "a deity or a ‘super-intelligence’ the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature", and "I now realise that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction".

He blamed his error on being "misled" by Richard Dawkins, claiming Dawkins "has never been reported as referring to any promising work on the production of a theory of the development of living matter". His 2007 book revisited the question, however, and questioned contemporary models: "the latest work I have seen shows that the present physical universe gives too little time for these theories of abiogenesis to get the job done." He added: "The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and "coded chemistry"? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.

From: Controversy over his position

So basically he seems to have been persuaded by Intelligent Design and Fine-Tuning Arguments. It seems bizarre that a philosopher of Flew’s standing and reputation would rely on Arguments from Incredulity as a basis for believing in a ‘God’. I say this because both Intelligent Design theory (?) and the Fine Tuning argument are precisely that.

What is an Argument from Incredulity?

Argument from Incredulity is an informal logical fallacy where a participant draws a positive conclusion from an inability to imagine or believe the converse. This is a fallacy because someone else with more imagination may find a way. This fallacy is therefore a simple variation of argument from ignorance. In areas such as science and technology, where new discoveries and inventions are always being made, new findings may arise at any time.

In other words, because one can conceive of no other way something could have come to be, it must be ‘God’ that did it. In this case, due to the inability of Flew to conceive of ways that life arose from inorganic matter naturally, it must therefore be an ‘intelligent designer’ that did it – the same applying to the universe.

Its easy to see why this is a fallacious argument. Things like thunder, rain, earthquakes once upon a time were thought to be the work of gods because long ago scientific knowledge had not advanced to the point where these phenomena could be explained naturally. Just because we can’t explain it today, does not mean we will not be able to explain it in the future.

Scientists are already making great strides in trying to understand how life arose from inorganic matter, and a lot has happened since 2007, when Flew claimed that the work he had seen as of then (which we cannot corroborate) could not explain abiogenesis. For example, just TWO YEARS after he published his remarks, scientists were able, for the first time, to synthesize RNA enzymes that could replicate themselves indefinitely without the help of any proteins or other cellular components – taking a significant step toward confirming the viability of the RNA World model for the origin of life. (Read the paper here.)

It is therefore both presumptuous, and unproductive for anyone to declare the question of the origin of life a forever insurmountable mystery.

Awake! magazine continues, still on Flew…

He became convinced that the universe, the laws of nature, and life itself could not have arisen merely by chance. Is that a reasonable conclusion?

…and more on the laws of nature:

Physicist and author Paul Davies points out that science does a wonderful job of explaining physical phenomena such as rain. But he says: “When it comes to . . . questions such as ‘Why are there laws of nature?’ the situation is less clear.

Yes it is indeed less clear – but in no way does this provide sufficient justification for a belief in a ‘God’.

It is indeed puzzling why people are afraid to simply say.. I don’t know, when confronted with a mystery they cannot explain, and thereafter try to find out. Their desire to have an immediate answer at all costs (and one that is already predetermined from the start, i.e. ‘God’) is what renders believers prone to making fallacious arguments from incredulity in defense of their various religions.

Where as the mysteries are more profound with regards to the origin of the universe and the laws of nature, the same cannot be said about the origins of life, as already discussed. The issue of the origin of the universe and its physical laws is something scientists are currently working hard at to try to gain a better understanding of. Religious people, it seems, would prefer us to give up now and attribute it all to a deity. To reiterate something I wrote in a previous post:

Several logically and mathematically plausible explanations are on offer today from astrophysicists regarding the origins of the universe, such as the universe possibly spontaneously arising as a result of quantum fluctuations, or the universe being cyclical, or this universe being one out of an infinite number of universes. Even as these plausible models await empirical verification, what this tells us is that, in principle, the answer to the question ‘where did ‘everything come from’ does not necessarily have to be anything resembling what people call a ‘God’.

At this point we now have two options. Either declare the ‘mystery’ of the universe forever unsolvable and invoke ‘God’ as the explanation (as mankind did hundreds of years ago for things like thunder, rain, floods, volcanoes, and illness which today we can explain), or roll up our sleeves and keep investigating – especially since there are many good leads pointing to a completely natural, non-theistic, plausible scientific explanation for the origin of the universe.

Faith urges many to postulate the existence of ‘God’ to explain the mysteries. Reason urges others to investigate and try to unravel the mysteries in order to broaden our understanding of reality. If all the innovators through the ages had chosen the former option, we would most probably still be living in caves today.

Awake! magazine continues:

Indeed, many highly respected scientists do not consider it unscientific to believe in an intelligent First Cause.

But the majorityin the specific field of science relevant to the question i.e. cosmology – don’t.

On the other hand, to say that the universe, its laws, and life just happened is intellectually unsatisfying.

The jury is still out on how the universe and its came to be, and no credible or reputable scientist thinks, life ‘just happened’. Most models of abiogenesis are built around the notion of cumulative self replicating chemical reactions. Many of the building blocks of life have been synthesized from inorganic matter by simulating some of the conditions of the early Earth. Once the self replicating chemical reactions kick in, natural selection takes over and selects for the most adaptive combination of molecules to the particular environment. Indeed, this scenario is the complete opposite of ‘just happened’, and most scientists doing research in this specific area do actually find it intellectually satisfying.

Everyday experience tells us that design —especially highly sophisticated design—calls for a designer.

…which is an unjustified assumption that British philosopher David Hume debunked over 250 years ago:

Hume gave the classic criticism of the design argument in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. He argued that for the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But order is observed regularly, resulting from presumably mindless processes like snowflake or crystal generation. Design accounts for only a tiny part of our experience with order and "purpose". Furthermore, the design argument is based on an incomplete analogy: because of our experience with objects, we can recognize human-designed ones, comparing for example a pile of stones and a brick wall. But to point to a designed Universe, we would need to have an experience of a range of different universes. As we only experience one, the analogy cannot be applied. We must ask therefore if it is right to compare the world to a machine — as in Paley’s watchmaker argument — when perhaps it would be better described as a giant inert animal. Even if the design argument is completely successful, it could not (in and of itself) establish a robust theism; one could easily reach the conclusion that the universe’s configuration is the result of some morally ambiguous, possibly unintelligent agent or agents whose method bears only a remote similarity to human design. In this way it could be asked if the designer was God, or further still, who designed the designer? Hume also reasoned that if a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then God’s mind (being so well-ordered) also requires a special designer. And then this designer would likewise need a designer, and so on ad infinitum. We could respond by resting content with an inexplicably self-ordered divine mind but then why not rest content with an inexplicably self-ordered natural world?

The Awake! magazine feature on atheism then ventures into the tired science is based on faith argument, at which point I felt myself starting to doze off…

The publishers should rename their magazine Asleep!sleep emoticon