Sunday, December 20, 2009

A paradox of atheism

Ben Stein's documentary Expelled, about the censuring of scientists who speculate about intelligent design, was on cable this weekend. I had it on while I was doing some work on my laptop. Toward the end of the film, Stein interviewed the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, and asked him how life began. Dawkins conceded that no one knew, but said it was possible that some advanced civilization elsewhere in the universe had initially seeded life here on Earth1. Stein was too satisfied with this admission of the possibility of some form of intelligent design by Dawkins to ask the more interesting follow up questions. For example, if some alien civilization seeded life here, who seeded life there -- or is it turtles all the way down2?

1This idea was dramatized, in Epcot Center fashion, in one of the favorite movies of occasional commenter Y./The Rivers.

2You could raise the same objection about theistic or deistic explanations, as Bertrand Russell did in his quote on that Wikipedia page, but the point -- and the paradox -- is that atheists still end up faced with incredible stories to explain enduring mysteries. How fun can Flying Spaghetti Monster mockery be when your alternative explanation is space aliens?


Daniel said...

This is what makes the explanation of God so compelling. The beauty of "God said it, I believe it, that does it" is that it obviates anymore discussion or thought. The reason we exist is---God. Thinking is so hard. So much easier to make up something supernatural and ta da you're done for the day.

JK said...

"atheists still end up faced with incredible stories to explain enduring mysteries."

That's no atheistic paradox. An atheistic explanation for our existence does not require a creator at any step. I did not see the clip in question, but just because Dawkins said that was possible, does not mean it is required. Many scientists think it is likely that life will arise on its own in any universe with similar physical properties to our own.

While I do not consider myself an athiest any more -simply agnostic- an alien explanation for the start of life on earth is far more plausible (although one I do not advocate) than "God" doing so, simply because
aliens do not have to violate any known laws of physics to exist. You seem to simply find this explanation more incredible because it does not neatly fit into any cultural mythos - like, oh, say, the evil daemon Yahweh rampaging throughout the Middle East with his Wandering Tribe, commiting genocide of indigenous populations (wait, maybe that was an alien after all!).

You may want to address the God Paradox as well: Namely, how can an all powerful, "good" being allow people to be tortured and starved to death (often in his name)? If their is a Christian/Jew/Muslim-variety God, he should be prosecuted for criminal neglect, at the very least.

Backpeddling a little bit, one thing I've noticed about religious types, including my former self, is that they seem to have a strong desire for there to be some kind of complete, tailor made story to explain everything. They can't seem to admit that gaps in human knowledge do not require the supernatural to fill them.

Conversely, militant athiests like Dawkins, and my other former self, do not admit the extent to which they do not know everything either, and that "God" does not have to be a super-natural moral actor, but perhaps just the computational substrate that runs the physical universe. Likewise, spirituality does not have to be supernatural, but completely natural.

My personal pet theory is that the universe is something like a universal cellular automaton with Planck-constant-sized cells, shaped in a torus (if a 2d hologram ala digital physics) or vorciferating hypershere (if required to act in 4 dimensions). Beyond that I find Nick Bostrom's simulation theories plausibe, and these actors could exist in a Platonic "pure forms" universe. This kind of speculation is edifying and fun, but I think what propels most people to athiesm and non-belief is not the logical rejection of the possiblility of God or spirituality, but the forced inclusion of massive, often patently false, dogma into the spiritual realm by believers. Given what we do and do not know about the universe, it seems the most logical position to take on broad metaphysical questions should be one of general agnosticism. There is nothing that absolutely demands either a completely athiest or religious explanation. Both are stages I've passed through, and I do not find either satisfying - the concept of God as defined by major religions is permeated with real paradoxes (free will/determinism, Good God/Evil World, etc), yet militant materialism as advocated by Dawkins, Dennet, et al leaves much to be desired, IMHO, as well.

DaveinHackensack said...


Yes, thinking is hard. But if you go back to the first sentence in this post, you'll note that the individuals censured for speculating about intelligent design were scientists, men who think for a living. More generally, your statement that religious belief obviates the need for discussion or thought is belied by centuries of such discussion and thought by religious intellectuals.

At either end of the religious-irreligious spectrum, you will find both thinkers and those who don't think too much.

DaveinHackensack said...


I suppose you're right that whether space aliens seeding life on earth sounds crazier than a deity interceding in that process is subjective. But you end up with spooky gaps or crazy-sounding explanations at the frontiers of other areas of science.

There really shouldn't be a conflict here between science qua science and meta-scientific speculation. As I recall from my undergraduate science classes, there wasn't. For example, the mystery of action at distance was noted in a physics textbook, characterized as metaphysical question, and left at that. An objection raised by one of the censured scientists in the movie was that the scientific academic establishment was stepping over into the metaphysical area and making pronouncements there, and ostracizing those who disagree.

Honestly, I haven't paid close enough attention to this dispute to be familiar with all the details, but on the surface this seems similar to the recent examples of overreaching by the Global Warming/Climate Change establishment. Perhaps the pendulum has swung so far in the last few centuries that academic science has taken on the rigidity and intolerance of dissent of the geocentric-era Catholic Church.

Re the religious paradox you bring up, I mentioned Spinoza's and Leibniz's respective responses to it in this post. A third response, one that I think is more common among religious Christians and Jews, is that whatever happens is all part of His inscrutable plan.

Re your Cosmology 903, it sounds like a fascinating discussion for us to have if we meet for drinks someday. Given your background and subsequent experiences, you seem to have done more thinking on this than most laymen.

JK said...

Yeah, I'm familiar with the Spinoza and Leibniz kind of replies from Christians. In Sunday School as a kid, one of the church leaders told me that God's morality is simply different than the morality he prescribes for us. I did not find this convincing at all, for many reasons that tie into other Christian doctrines relating to the universality of Good and Evil. It is hard to see this explanation as anything other than a "might makes right" cop-out, and as far as it matters to me personally, I'd rather not worship a being who would set things up like that!

As far as the argument that this is the best possible universe, fine, but by saying that, one immediately prevents God from being an all-powerful god by constraining his ability (since he is unable to make a better universe - even though it does not take a very bright person to imagine a better one for himself). Such a being would no longer be God, but a god.

The "inscrutable plan" was another common response from religious leaders I questioned , but it doesn't answer the question of why he needs to include suffering to achieve his goals. Either he is not all-Good and doesn't really give a shit about our suffering, or he is not all-powerful and can't prevent it.

Most God paradoxes, when thought all the way through, are only able to be resolved by demoting God to god. Attributing the three omni's to him inevitably leads to unresolvable paradoxes. The best debate I've had with a believer was actually with a Jehovah's Witness, who put constraints on God's capabilities in order to resolve the paradoxes. I had never thought much of the Witnesses before, but if this fellow's beliefs were as representative of his denomination as it seemed, then Witnesses may have most logically consistent of the Christian beliefs I've encountered.

Incidently, I doubt the sincerity of many apologists of the Leibniz/Spinoza era. If you were a productive thinking man in those times, you were basically conscripted by the Church to help them defend the faith, whether you wanted to or not. One of the philosophy professors I had (at that point he was probably the first conservative I found intellectually stimulating) pointed out the subliminal humanism Descartes inserted into his prayers and arguments, which was enlightening. These kind of tricks were common with Rosicrucians (before they were infiltrated by Jesuits) like Descartes, and would often lead to charges of atheism. One of Descartes' prayers was especially egregious, he rather blatantly prayed to himself as a god - I wish I still had the text to quote.

JK said...

Pt 2 (ran into the character limit)

At any rate, I quickly tired of debating orthodox believers when I found out that most religions, including Christianity, have an exoteric meaning for the masses and a nuanced, esoteric meaning for the initiated. The real beliefs of many very high level Catholics do not resemble the beliefs of your neighborhood priest very much. Ditheism* is popular, so is what is essentially Buddhism with a Christian touch. Another interesting example of an esoteric catholic teaching is that Hell is not really supposed to last forever, just long enough to appropriately punish people before they are admitted to join God in Heaven (the meaning of these common terms also change somewhat). Popes, Cardinals, ranking Jesuits etc were not to communicate this to the masses, however, for it would supposedly diminish the threat of Hellfire and encourage sinful behavior. Catholicism is a very rich Christian belief system, and if there was a downside to the Protestant revolution it was that a lot of this esoteric richness is lost to Christians today.

*Ditheism the basis for the creation of groups like the Jesuits, who follow the Black (evil) Pope. The idea that Lucifer/evil is an arm of God, that Good needs Evil and vice versa, was understandibly considered too complicated for the masses to understand.


I would probably agree with you that the pendulum has swung too far the other way in terms of very narrow ideologies being enforced in some areas of academia, although I personally wouldn't quite compare it to the Church of the dark ages. A while ago I pointed to this article that mentions the ostracization a Swedish cosmologist faced for developing a completely innocuous and secular "theory of everything".

I learned pretty early that if I focused exclusively on these big questions I’d end up working at McDonald’s,” Tegmark explains. “So I developed this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde strategy where officially, whenever I applied for jobs, I put forth my mainstream work. And then quietly, on the side, I pursued more philosophical interests.”

Tegmark was not in the secret club who is allowed to develop theories of significance...Only the official creators of worldviews are allowed to do that.

I do also think there is a resemblance to religion in science in that there are varying levels of esoteric knowledge for the "initiated" (politically connected etc). Various ex-military friends have mentioned technology that has been developed that far exceeds what the public knows of today, which makes sense considering modern stealth technology was operational in the 40s. If there is a Kurzweil Sigularity due in 50 years or so, the US military has to be closing in already, lol. Allegedly, a good place for a motivated, smart individual to become involved in these things is to attend school at the New Mexico Institute of Technology, which is on a town owned by Dept of Homeland Security. The spooks and gubmint black projects recruit from that school. A friend of a friend of mine dropped out of NMIT after seeing one too many strange things there - i.e., unusual nocturnal flying contraptions, elusive professors, and frequent, very high-fidelity military drills as well.

DaveinHackensack said...

Be careful not to conflate Spinoza's position with Leibniz's. Spinoza was no apologist for Christianity (or for Judaism, the faith into which he was born). He was the rationalist who started from a blank sheet of paper, as it were, and followed where his logic took him. Where it took him was somewhere that I doubt many Christians would find comforting. Leibniz, on the other hand, was a devout Christian, and sought to reconcile his belief with his rationalist philosophy. His Theodicy was his attempt at that. You correctly note the problem with it, the constraints it applies on the putatively omnipotent.

"Another interesting example of an esoteric catholic teaching is that Hell is not really supposed to last forever, just long enough to appropriately punish people"

Then how would it differ from Limbo -- only in the harshness of its punishments?

The conception of the Devil you attribute to the Jesuits sounds similar to the one in the Book of Job.

I'll have to read that article about the Swedish cosmologist -- I'll put it in my list of material to read while I am procrastinating from doing work. Worth noting that Spinoza faced similar pressures. He turned down an offer of a professorship at Heidelberg, I think, saying something to the effect of, "I don't know how to teach philosophy without pissing people off". His Ethics was published posthumously.

I'm not so sure the military has secret tech as futuristic as you think. Thinks like DARPA investing in frauds like Ionotron (the company that claimed to have a lightning gun that could zap IEDs) and news that our drone communications weren't encrypted and were hacked by Iranians make me a little skeptical.

Rob said...

I saw Ben Stein's documentary (and enjoyed it), and it's unfair to accuse Dawkins of putting forth the alien origin theory. He just offhand allowed that it "could" be possible -- that the evidence is such that it couldn't be excluded. I'm sure he is well aware that such a theory still demands an ultimate method for life originating somewhere.

My own belief right now is that it is quite possible that humans can never grasp enough of the universe (because of the mathematically-required number of dimensions)to answer questions such as these.

JK said...

"Then how would it differ from Limbo -- only in the harshness of its punishments?"

Yes, at least that's what I understand when it was explained to me. Limbo is primarily for those who never had a chance to be saved, like infants and good people who lived before Jesus' time.

"The conception of the Devil you attribute to the Jesuits sounds similar to the one in the Book of Job."

That was a striking book, wasn't it? The Devil just waltzes right in to make bets with God, and God lets him torture his favorite human for no real good reason.

"I'm not so sure the military has secret tech as futuristic as you think. Thinks like DARPA investing in frauds like Ionotron (the company that claimed to have a lightning gun that could zap IEDs) and news that our drone communications weren't encrypted and were hacked by Iranians make me a little skeptical."

I don't think the non-essential, political, private contractor wars of late are running on the same technology track as completely government-owned hardware. There's too much testimony to the contrary by people who would know. Beyond that, why would our nation want its cutting edge technology to be public knowledge anyway? Or owned by the same conglomerates who sell their equipment to everyone else? It doesn't make sense for us not to. On what would you posit the black project funds are being used for, if not secret technology, anyway? Stealth technology was developed by the Nazis in WWII and we stole it (and their scientists), keeping it under lock and key until the 80s. I'm sure there are other examples of projects under wraps, perhaps Project Orion to name one.

Ultimately, its all a race to reach the Holy Grails of various disciplines. First one there rules the world.

Physics - Closed Timelike Curves, and 'how to create a universe' (which could explain the Fermi Paradox).

Computers - Strong AI

Biology - Self modification on a genetic level, creation of new organisms.

Nanotechnology - Nanobots

The funny thing with technological progress is that it is exponential, not linear. Because humans think in a linear fashion, claims by futurists often seem unrealistically fantastic. Also, specialists in one area tend not to be aware of progress in other areas, and how it could help them. Moore's Law doesn't only apply to computer chips, it applies to every branch of technology. It took billions of dollars and over a decade to decode the first human genome, now anyone can have it done in no time for a few thousand bucks, something that was declared impossible by ignorant geneticists a few years ago. In a year or two, the price will be under a hundred bucks and everyone will be have it done (I can't wait). The government, or any organization, does not have to be very far ahead of the public sector to have technology that appears fantastic. It is no coincidence that Area 51 turned out to be a very real, secret air force base. Aliens, indeed! No, just the technology possible with unlimited funding, no need to "turn a profit", and a talented, enthusiastic workforce.

Computer genius Ray Kurzweil makes a compelling case that we will all be uploaded into artificial hardware by the end of this century or sooner, becoming one with our machines. One could call him crazy, but those who take the time to understand the case he presents, such as Bill Gates, the US government, and the Google guys, do not.

Anonymous said...

jk - what can I learn about myself by having my own genome mapped?

jimbo said...

Physics - Closed Timelike Curves, and 'how to create a universe' (which could explain the Fermi Paradox).

Never Happen.

Computers - Strong AI

Never happen, because it's impossible.

Biology - Self modification on a genetic level, creation of new organisms.

Some will happen around the edges, but will inevitably disappoint because the importance of genes is vastly overrated. Biology is the most hubristic of disciplines, because they always believe they have everything 99% figured out, only to have the rug pulled out from under them by a new, undreamed of level of complexity.

Nanotechnology - Nanobots

Might happen, but will end up being far less capable than their cheerleaders project (Nanotech people are just as arrogant and deluded as biologists...)

JK said...

You'd be able to see if you are predisposed to develop certain diseases, for starters, so you can take preventative steps. That will be what most people will do with their genome data at first. I'd also expect you'd be able to check on other predispositions as well, such as personality, as time goes on and more is learned about how your genes influence these softer traits.
I also think that soon most people will have babies in vitro, so that they can produce many embryos, map the genetic data, and implant the embryo with the most desirable genetic traits.
Government regulation and irrational public hysteria from Luddites on the right and the left is the wild card in all this.

JK said...


I welcome the debate, but care to put some meat on your rebuttals? You sound like someone who laughed at the Wright Brothers or Einstein's Jewish physics.

The only one with any meat at all for me to contest is your biology statement. What levels of complexity have been undreamed of? The only possible completely unplumbed new level is quantum computing by individual cells, especially neurons (ala the Orch-Or model), but that's already been conceptualized, so it's already dreamed of (and does not preclude reverse engineering).

Also how are genes overrated? What is more important?

jimbo said...

What levels of complexity have been undreamed of?

For one, the whole nature of the protein synthesis process. 19th century biologists saw the cell as basically a sack of chemicals - as microscopes have become more and more refined, every function of the cell has been revealed to be a finely tuned activity that puts the most complex human factory to shame.

Most recently, the "central dogma" promulgated in the 60s - that one gene codes for one protein, that the process is one way, etc. has been cirutally abandoned. Turns out that stuff like alternative splicing makes a hash of it.

As for genes, I would simply point to the commentary of Rupert Sheldrake here:

JK said...

Jimbo, a lot of the apparent complexity in biology is simpler than it appears. Complex neural growth, for instance, can be easily simulated with a recursive probabilistic fractal. Complexity can be emergent, it does not have to have complex genetic instructions, this is at the crux of chaos theory and the popularity of Benoit Mandelbrot. Creativity is guided randomness.

Sheldrake, like many creationists, is good at quote mining and pointing out what we do not know, using numerical and statistical obfuscation, etc, but does not give enough credit to the massive strides already made and the trajectory we are on, nor is his alternative mystical theory of force fields, lol, very likely to be true. By the end of the next year it is likely the first custom made single-celled organisms will be put together completely from scratch with our current knowledge of genetics, proteomics, etc. No force fields or ghosts in the machines needed. As biological research becomes more and more a matter of computation and computer simulation, the exponential growth in this field will become all the more apparent.

Nick Rowe said...

Yes, JK, atheism DOES require a "creator". In any theory of the origin of the universe there must be a first cause. That first cause must have a reason for departing from the knife-edge equilibrium of oblivion. Structure requires order and change requires chaos. Those primordial entities require at least a primitive intellect to function with purpose in opposition to one another to maintain the disequilibrium of existence. Something must imbue them with that intellect and purpose.

There is no "God paradox". God's gift to mankind and our PURPOSE for being is to live according to our own free will. A world with nothing but good and without being earned and appreciated is no gift. It's an empty existence.

If the entire universe were created with no design, then all existence is the result of a random confluence of events. The order we observe is the result of physical forces reaching a stable local equilibrium. Thus, mankind has absolutely no purpose. Our existence would have no importance relative to a comet, gaseous clouds, space dust, a lump of iron, or a black hole.

Morality would be a nonsensical concept because the universe would be indifferent between me loving my children and me eating my children. The universe would be indifferent between all actions we take or do not take. Our intellect would just be another chemical equilibrium producing actions with no meaning. Pain and pleasure would have equal value as sensations. You could argue that man defines his own morality and his own purpose, but that begs the question.

You obviously do not behave as if your life has no purpose. The universe doesn't care so you shouldn't care either.

What is care? Purpose? Love? Morality? These things have no meaning in "your" world.

Your own actions and thoughts are predicated on a PURPOSE for your existence and that purpose implies the existence of a Creator who gave you purpose and who defined absolute and objective morality.

People of faith don't have a complete picture of God which is why you observe actions, interpretations, and beliefs which are not internally consistent. I understand why that turns you off of religion, but you don't recognize a similarly inconsistent dogma within your own belief structure.

Bible stories are likely metaphors, formed from primitive and incomplete understanding of our universe passed down through generations. Yet humans have this skill of observation and deduction which makes us special. Science and the pursuit of God spring from the same skill set.

God is an extra-dimensional being who cannot be observed by our five senses and is likely inconceivable by our primitive intellect. Inability to observe him directly is not proof of his non-existence. We can perceive, reason or impute his existence from the universe around us, his greatest testament.

Read Flatland for a good primer on how a higher dimensional being can be completely unobservable but still perceptible and influential. This is not sufficient evidence for the existence of God, but it will open your mind to possibilities for which you are currently in denial.

The Drake Equation purports to calculate the number of worlds in the universe with sentient life. The conditions to create life on Earth are far more improbable than anyone had ever realized. Earth was created by an off-center collision with an iron-core body about the size of Mars. It stripped off our crust which created the moon and provided the iron for our magnetic field. The moon stabilizes Earth's orbit and the magnetic field shields us from radiation. Meteor or comet collisions provided water and oxygen. The moon and Jupiter act as collision protection.

No medium sized Sun, no iron core, no water, no moon, no Jupiter, no stable climate, no life on Earth.

All that certainly doesn't seem like a cosmic accident and the vastness of the universe is no guaranty of replicating infinitesimally improbable events.