Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The fine-tuning argument

I listened to the latest Infidel Guy podcast earlier. This was "an atheist debater's primer" i.e. it discussed several subjects which commonly come up in Christian / Atheist debates, and offered arguments for atheists to use in such situations. Like the way Jehovah's Witnesses are primed with answers to common questions, but in reverse.

One of the arguments that they discussed was the 'fine-tuning argument' - this is used by some Christians in an attempt to demonstrate that life is so unlikely that it couldn't have happened by chance.

The basic reasoning goes like this: if the way this universe works was different by the tiniest margin, then life could not exist. Therefore the universe must have been designed, because it works so well. For example, if the universal gravitational constant was slightly less, the universe would have simply expanded so fast that no planets could have formed. And many other 'constants' are found such that minor variations in them would lead to an untenable situation for life to exist.

The two main arguments against this were:

1. The universe appears to be fine-tuned to produce life, but it also appears more fine-tuned to produce black holes. Some scientists estimate there are more black holes out there than there are living organisms on this planet...

2. Existence may have had a near infinite amount of time to try out all the possible combinations of fundamental constants - perhaps there have been countless universes where the constants were totally wrong for producing life, but nobody was there to observe them. We are only here to observe the universe because the fundamental constants that work in this universe are the ones which do work together to allow life to exist. Thus all arguments to probability fall apart.

This set me thinking. Given an infinite amount of (for lack of a better word) time, then all possible universes will exist at one time or another. The universe where there is a big bang that leads to life evolving on the third planet out from a small yellow sun will happen at some point. But, using this reasoning it is also reasonable to assume that the universe where there is a God who can create a small yellow sun and start life on the third planet out from it will also happen. It is neither more likely nor less likely; given an infinity of existence, both will happen at some point.

How can you tell which you are living in?

Answers for the Hillbilly Atheist: Part 4

Hello there to the Hillbilly Atheist! He's started reading my blog, so I guess I'd better get on with answering all his questions...

For what its worth, I don't think you should simply address the questions on your page to Christian Fundamentalists - if you're sticking to your atheist worldview, you are rejecting all forms of belief in all sorts of divine beings. I believe that belief in the divine is reasonable and rational, although I'm not a fundamentalist, in the contemporary useage of the word (I would like to be able to call myself a 'fundamentalist', in that I believe the fundamentals of Christianity without all the unnecessary baggage, but the word has been claimed by those who insist on believing all the baggage as well, sigh). Anyway, on with the questions:

31. If you believe the bible word for word, why does he kill two people for lying to peter and yet won’t smite a child rapist?

Well, as I've said in previous posts, I don't believe the bible word-for-word. But having said that, there are two things about the case of Ananias & Sapphira (Acts Chapter 5) that are worth noting:

The first is the timing of their actions. It could be that God wanted to get the church off to a good start, and if the rot set in too early the thing would collapse before it had a chance to grow properly. Nowadays, the church is big enough to sustain quite a lot of rotten parts (and I don't deny that they are there), so such drastic action is not required.

The second aspect in this case is Peter. As I said in an earlier response to your questions, for some unknown reason, God always works through people. Or rather, God gives his power to his people for them to use. In this instance I'm sure the decision to kill the two folk was Peter's, not God's. God empowered Peter, Peter decided to use that power to remove the rot in a spectacularly hot-headed way (he is always shown to be an impulsive character).

Or maybe the story is a myth that got added in at some later date.

32. Since Jews don’t believe in Jesus they are going to hell, now Hitler on the other hand could have converted on his death bed and went to heaven while the Jews he killed went to hell no matter how good they were, so isn’t god infinitely worse than Hitler? Also in Thessalonians 2:13-15 god apparently agrees with Hitler.

1 Thessalonians 2:13-16... My understanding of these verses relates to Paul's interpretation of world events in his time. 'The Jews' in this instance does not refer to all people who are ethnically Jewish, but to the current rulers of Judea. Who (I think) were in the process of being wiped out by the Romans at the time. Paul saw the events unfolding and interpreted the events as a punishment from God for Jesus's crucifixion.

Now, will Hitler be judged less harshly than the Jews? No. Will the Jews be judged with different criteria than Hitler? No. According to Revelation, everyone will be judged according to what they have done (Revelation 20v12).

As far as I know, Hitler did not convert on his deathbed, so this question is fairly pointless. However, I'm sure that somewhere in history a Jew will have converted on his deathbed.

33. Why didn’t god smite Hitler but did smite a guy in the bible just for touching a box? (see 2 Samuel 6:6 7)

God doesn't generally smite. As I've said on a few occasions, he generally works through people. However, the 2 Samuel story is an odd one. Maybe it's just a myth. But maybe the power of God did exist in some form in that box, if that was the case, it wasn't smiting but simply a genuine discharge of power that killed the guy.

34. If you think god isn’t happy about casting people into hell why does he say in proverbs that he will laugh at you while he does it? (first chapter start around the 2oth verse and read on)

The bible was written by people. Not all of them had a rational and reasonable view of God.

35. if Adam and eve were perfect before the fall, than how come they sinned, did god create imperfect beings, what about the devil, wasn't he perfect, how did he fall, did god mess up with him too?

See my post about Freewill. God created good things and hence the possibility of evil. And where does it say that Adam & Eve were perfect? They were merely 'good' and mucked up.

36. As an atheist I simply don't realize your god is real so how is it right to torment me for all eternity for an honest mistake?

As I've said before, 'torment' is a loaded word. And I'm certain that we have a totally wrong concept of both heaven and hell. But for what its worth, I believe that the world is filled with people who fall into one of two categories: those who, given the choice, would choose to live with God and those who wouldn't. God will not force those who don't want to live with him to do so.

37. How does the soul interact with the brain, what scientific evidence is there that shows how it happens and where it happens.

None. But there is no scientific evidence as to where consciousness is in terms of the brain. But you believe in consciousness, don't you?

38. What is a soul made out of?

Don't know. Does it matter?

39. Do retarded people have retarded souls?

This question offends me. I worked with adults with learning disabilites for a while a few years ago. These were folk right at the bottom of the IQ scale. What amazed me at the time was the way that some of them responded to God in an open and loving manner, while some totally rejected belief in God. Pretty much the same pattern that I have seen with intelligent people at the other end of the IQ spectrum. It would seem that God doesn't judge people according to their intelligence, he accepts the clever and the stupid. However, some of Jesus's parables warn that we will be judged according to the gifts we have been given - more will be expected from those who had more to begin with.

What I think God gets out of all this is love. And the capacity to love is not related to intelligence in any way.

40. Why does a righteous god think virgin women are war booty (numbers 31:17-18)

I think that was an incorrect rationalisation on the part of the writer of the book, several hundred years after the event. I think the thought process went something like this: We won the battle. This must have been because God was with us. We took the virgins as booty. This must have been because God told us this was OK...

More another time.

Friday, September 08, 2006


I was surprised to discover that the word 'omnipotence' (or rather the Greek word translated as such) doesn't occur in the bible until the book of Revelation. Jesus doesn't speak of God in those terms. Neither does Paul for that matter.

In fact, the closest Jesus gets to saying anything of the sort is when he says "with God all things are possible" (Matt 19v26).

The word 'almighty' is more common, but while this appears to mean "all-powerful" at face value, apparently the words translated to 'almighty' in English have more of a "supreme ruler" meaning than "absolute power". Its the sort of title that would be given to a human emperor.

The question is, of course, is God omnipotent? That is, is he able to do anything that can be conceived?

Most Christians I know will not question this, but I had a conversation with someone a few years ago who believed otherwise. He believes that God is omnipresent and is supremely (but not unlimitedly) powerful. And pointed out that any non-infinite amount of power (however huge) spread over an infinite expanse results in only small amounts of power in any given place and time.

Using this reasoning he can explain creation (in big bang terms) in that God's vast power was not spread over infinite time and space then but was concentrated into one location and time (I realise that the words 'location' and 'time' are meaningless here, but I hope you know what I mean). He can also explain localised miracles, such as healings, changing water to wine, the resurrection and so on. But he also uses it to explain why God did not prevent the tsunami a few years ago - perhaps seismic activity on this scale is outwith the bounds of his localised power?

This comes back to the old debate about why a loving God allows suffering. Perhaps he genuinely can't deal with it all?

And if God is not omnipotent, is he worth following?

Actually, I'd answer yes to that question. Its the same reasoning I used in a previous post. The questions are 'is Jesus the son of God?' and 'will trusting in him lead to eternal life?' If you can answer yes to those, does it matter if God is unable to stop the movement of an ocean?

Anyway, can I stress that this is an issue I'm working my way through, not one on which I've made up my mind? I haven't totally slipped into heresy. Please comment.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Belief and knowledge

One of the problems with discussions between believers and non-believers is that both groups of people claim to have knowledge about the subject rather than merely belief. The Christian might think "I don't just believe in God, I know that he is there" while the non-believer probably thinks "I know there is no god".

The problem with these mindsets is that there is no room for dialogue. They can't possibly both be right.

I am of the opinion that it is possible to know God, but you know the person, but believe things about him. Over the years my beliefs about God have changed. Hopefully they're getting closer to the truth, but that might not be the case. Either way, if there is room for change, then I don't actually have definitive knowledge about God.

I used to think that I was right to talk about what I know about God, while I shunned the 'belief' word. But the more I think about it, the more I see the arrogance of that position and am more inclined towards belief. If you merely believe something, you acknowledge that you have more to learn, if you claim to know, then the door to learning is shut.

Also, if you merely believe things, the road to dialogue is open. Not merely dialogue with non-believers, but dialogue with other believers in different traditions. If you merely believe things, you can agree to differ on many things, but if you know you are right, then you probably know the other is wrong, and the common ground between you can get very thorny.

Remember Paul's words (1 Cor 13:8-12) "... where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."