Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer

This list of 20 questions was posted on P.J. Saunders blog recently. He says that in 40 years of discussion with atheists he has yet to hear good answers to these questions. Hmmm. Not that I consider myself an atheist, as such, but I figure I might as well have a go at answering these, or at least pondering the issues around the questions. So here goes:

1. What caused the universe to exist?
The two popular rival theories here seem to be "Nothing" as defended by Lawrence Krauss and others, and "God" as defended by believers everywhere. But there is a bias in the question, it focuses on 'the universe' rather than 'anything'. What caused anything to exist? Where anything includes 'God'...

You can't invoke God as the cause of himself. Theism assumes that this sort of question cannot be applied to God. Why not? Well, because God just is. To the believer, this makes perfect sense but, curiously, the idea that the universe just is, or that anything else just is, appears not to be acceptable.

In the theism vs atheism argument, the question of origins is a total red herring. That the universe exists is a reasonable fact, that it came into being seems to be plausible, but the assertion that it must have had a cause is standing on shaky ground. Why need there be a cause? The regress has to stop somewhere - if there is a cause, what caused the cause? If God was the cause, what caused God? Somewhere the chain of regress has to stop. Unless other evidence presents itself, we simply can't assume that the regress stops at a hypothetical being. Unless other evidence presents itself, we must stop at the observable and testable. The universe is. Asking why, without evidence to support a theory, is pointless.
Furthermore, the cosmic origins philosopher gets very tied in knots here. He invokes a God as 'cause' for the universe, whilst simultaneously trying to use the existence of the universe as evidence for that same God. You can't have it both ways. If you want to use God as a cause, you must demonstrate by other means that he was able to do the causing. No theist has ever done this, as far as I am aware.

2. What explains the fine tuning of the universe?
Is the universe fine tuned? Fine tuned for what? For the existence of our kind of life? As has been explained by many others cleverer and more erudite than me, our kind of life is a product of this universe, so of course the universe looks fine tuned to us. Had the universe been such that life could not have evolved here, then the question could not have been asked.

Boffins have good reasons for theorising a multiverse, where there may be an unlimited number of possible universes, each with different 'fine tuned' parameters. In some of them some form of life might exist, in many it might not. Given limitless 'time' and numbers of universes, a universe that appears fine-tuned to life is bound to happen eventually. And here we are.

A limitless multiverse is no better or worse a solution to this question than a limitless God. And the converse is also true.

3. Why is the universe rational?
Is the universe rational? I certainly don't fully understand it. Do you?

The problem with this question is that it presupposes that only a universe created by a rational God could be rational. In other words, it presupposes rationality as an initial state. It suggests that rationality could not have arisen by itself so must always have existed. 

This is fine if you have external evidence for this claim. Otherwise you are just going around the same loop as in Question 1 - using God to explain something and using the something as evidence for God. You can't have that both ways.

4. How did DNA and amino acids arise? 
5. Where did the genetic code come from?
6. How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?
Don't know. Not my area of interest or expertise. I'll pass on these. The flip-side question is how did God create these? Not did God create, but how did God create them? "He just went Zap" is not an acceptable answer in science.

7. How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?
Not my area of interest or expertise either, but I'd guess that the proto-human race was fragmented into more than 116 different groups before any of them had formed a workable language, but while they were, in essence, language capable.

The alternative explanation - that there were more than 116 people involved in the construction of the Tower of Babel - is not exactly a watertight case. Here you have to presuppose that all these peoples, who started at the exact same geographical location, split up and went their own separate ways without any cross-pollination of language at all. What? None of them hooked up with the others? Some of them ran all the way to Australia in silence before they spoke to others? Ludicrous.

8. Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?
All over the world? Which cities in Australia or the Americas are you referring to? Everywhere else is well enough connected together to allow for the 'meme' of cities to spread from the 'cradle of civilistation' out to the extremities of Africa, Europe and Asia in a two thousand year period. A lot can happen in two thousand years. I wouldn't be surprised to find that it actually happened in a few hundred. As soon as someone has a city, their neighbours want one... and so on.

9. How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
Begging the question again. Is independent thought possible? Is the world ruled by chance and necessity?

10. How do we account for self-awareness?
I don't. It is the state in which I find myself. Why should I not be self aware? But the flipside of this is why a creator God should create millions upon millions of creatures that are not self aware and only one (apparently) which is.

11. How is free will possible in a material universe?
Begging the question again. Is free will possible? I think it is, but maybe I am determined to believe that.

12. How do we account for conscience?
It is an evolved characteristic that comes from a herd mentality. We are disposed to do what is best for the herd and ourselves. When we act for ourselves only against the best interests of the herd, our evolved conscience kicks in and makes us feel bad. But clearly not everyone has one of these anyway.

13. On what basis can we make moral judgements?
On the basis of what is best for the survival and happiness of the herd. Give me one example where this does not apply.

14. Why does suffering matter?
Because it hurts. Survival and happiness of the herd again.

15. Why do human beings matter?
Do human beings matter? They matter to me, but then again I am a human being. They don't really matter to lions, except as a source of occasional food.

16. Why care about justice?
Herd mentality again. An act against another member of the herd is an act against me. Therefore anything that I wouldn't want to happen to me I also don't want to happen to another in my herd.

17. How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?
I defer to Michael Shermer's explanation here. Humans are pattern seeing animals. Sometimes we see patterns that are not there and make inferences from them. We see apparent patterns in nature and attribute them to the actions of Gods. We see the shapes of people or faces when there are none there and deduce that it must have been some form of spirit or ghost. Then we teach these things to our children. It is very had to disprove that which relies on no evidence in the first place.

18. How do we know the supernatural does not exist?
Define natural. Depending on your definition, the supernatural might or might not exist. I prefer to define natural as 'everything that exists', so there is no supernatural, except in realms of the imagination.

19. How can we know if there is conscious existence after death? 
If we die and continue to have consciousness, then we find out. If we don't, we don't. Near death experiences, even some of the weirder ones with claims of visions of things happening remotely, are not evidence for an afterlife. At best they are evidence for extra sensory perception, but I'm not sure I would even go that far.

20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
All accounts of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances were written by people who believed these events had happened but were not themselves eye witnesses to the events. There is good evidence that none of the four gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Whoever wrote Galatians and 1st Corinthians may have had visions but saw no empty tomb or physical body.

What accounts for the growth of the Mormon church during the lifetime of Joseph Smith? Did he really see those golden plates and accurately translate them, or did thousands of people simply become convinced that he did?

That some people will believe any old nonsense is not in doubt. Maybe Christianity was simply in the right place at the right time with the right claims, and it just got lucky. It doesn't need an actual empty tomb or actual resurrection appearances to keep going. Most believers today do not have resurrection appearances and have no access to a tomb, empty or otherwise. Yet still they believe. Why should either factor have been necessary two thousand years ago?

So there you have it. My quick answers to the unanswered questions. I'm still lolling about in middle ground here. As I see it, both the atheist answers and the christian answers are no good, because most of the questions are flawed. There is no compelling apologetic for belief in God, there is no compelling anti-apologetic for non-belief. There are only questions - and many more questions than there ever are answers. Giving 'God' as an answer to most of the questions only raises more questions. It never settles anything. Sigh.

Friday, May 04, 2012

After the resurrection?

A thought just occurred to me. Its unlikely to be an original thought to me, but I decided to put it on the blog anyway. It is this:

What did the early Christians, who hadn't seen or heard the stories in Luke-Acts, think happened to Jesus after the resurrection?

Only Luke (24v51) and Acts (1v9) describe the ascension. John 20 knows of the ascension (here Jesus says he has 'not yet ascended') and the end of Mark 16 alludes to it (but this is part of the section that almost everyone agrees is not original to the gospel). If we assume (as is common) that John was a much later writer than Luke, and that Mark did not write the very end of Mark 16, then we have no record of the ascension until Luke writes, which was - by his own admission - later than several other gospels in circulation.

None of the earliest Christian writings - the Pauline epistles - speak of the ascension. The first two (at least) gospels to be written know nothing of it either. So what did the early believers think happened to Jesus? 

They believed he died, they believed he was raised, but without the ascension, the question they must have been asking was "Where is he?"

Or, at least, that is the question they must have been asking if (and only if) their understanding of resurrection was the same as our contemporary understanding of it. What if they had an entirely different understanding of things? What if the early Christians believed (as has been proposed by a number of NT critics and scholars) that Christ was raised directly to the right hand of the Father. That is, the resurrection and ascension were the same event. Any post resurrection appearances (such as those in Matthew 28) were viewed as simply being earthly manifestations of the heavenly Jesus. Even Luke and Acts which have the ascension make it clear that what the disciples experienced following the resurrection was a string of appearances. It is clear from the wording that Jesus did not live with the disciples, he merely appeared to them occasionally. 

Where was he between appearances? The gospels do not tell, but it seems to me that the appearances are quite consistent with the idea of earthly manifestations of a heavenly Jesus, and are less consistent with the idea that he was living somewhere on earth in between appearances. John tells us that some of the appearances were eight days apart.

Everything in Paul's writings is consistent with the idea that Jesus was raised directly to heaven. Indeed, Paul (in the famous 1 Cor 15 passage) makes no distinction in form between the appearances to Peter, the twelve, the 500 and himself. Yet Acts tells us that Paul's vision was after the ascension, and should therefore have been categorically different. It seems as if, as far as Paul is concerned, all the post resurrection appearances are visions from heaven, even if the visions have a physical manifestation. 

So what was Luke doing? What I'm wondering is whether Luke (or his source) invented the ascension story to explain why it is that you - the reader of his gospel, many years after the resurrection - do not get to have visible and tangible manifestations of Jesus on an occasional basis, although the early disciples apparently did. By fixing a definite 'end point' to the manifestations, Luke is providing a way to explain why things for us now are different from things in the stories. And also providing a way to dismiss any apparent visions of Christ (with associated revelations) which anyone might continue to have. The message of the ascension is this: Direct access to Christ has ended, there will be no new revelations from him, the stories in the bible are good enough for all your needs.

If this wild speculation is anywhere near the mark, it is fully consistent with the theory of David Trobisch, that Polycarp compiled the canon of the NT, composed Luke-Acts, and redacted John. In other words, the new canon contains all the revelation, anything else is heretical.

So what do you think? Was the ascension an invention to clamp down on ongoing claims of revelation from Jesus?