Hello. I noticed this article by a British doctor asking Atheists "Twenty Questions Atheists Struggle To Answer." I always enjoy a challenge so I answered them and emailed the following letter to him with my answers.
1. I would appreciate any comments, critiques, proposed revisions, additions, deletions YOU think would make my responses stronger/better.
2. These questions, some more so than others, may help you formulate your own responses for both your own edification, critical thinking skills and to assist others to "break the spell."
Kind regards to all.
Dear Dr. Saunders:
I apologize for being so late to the "game" but I only noticed your article playing "20 questions" today. Despite not being a scientist (retired trial attorney) I wanted to respond to your questions , not to attempt to persuade you of anything, but to see whether I should rethink my lapse from Christianity and rejoin the faithful. Any help you can provide would be genuinely appreciated. I am a seeker of truth and you believe you have some to offer. Please do. My answers are beneath each of your twenty questions. Please note that scientists DO struggle to answer many questions, including some you have posed, because science does not presume to know everything. Why and how the absence of perfect knowledge supports your belief in a triune deity despite no evidence thereof (unless you believe there IS such evidence, which would appear to contradict the very foundation of all religious belief, i.e. faith), is unclear to me. Hopefully, you will be kind enough to explain.
I would genuinely appreciate your answers to your questions or, if you deem them unanswerable, the reasons you believe the inability to answer these questions supports belief in a deity, especially YOUR deity, since you will agree there are others worshipped with equal faith, albeit incorrectly in your view, by others.
"Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer" (Your title, I believe)
1.What caused the universe to exist?
A. Nothing. See "A Universe From Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss. The explanation contained therein is subject to falsification as all scientific theories are. Feel free. Assuming a cause is required (you do based on your question. I do not, but I could be wrong), what caused your God? If your God does not require a cause, why does the Universe?
2.What explains the fine tuning of the universe?
A. Not sure. Science is still working on that one. I would point out that what you and others call "fine tuning" is simply human language attempting to describe what IS, as best we humans are able to describe what we OBSERVE in our universe. I enjoyed reading "Six Numbers" even though I did not understand a lot of the technical jargon. But I do understand that science has given us more meaningful answers in just the past one hundred years than all the religions of the world have given us throughout human history. Do you disagree? Science cured polio, hundreds of other diseases; observed that the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of our Solar system; "expanded" our universe to hundreds of billions of galaxies; and continues to make human life on Earth better and better. Any reason you can think of why Jesus, God himself according to you, never mentioned any of this valuable information while he was here saving us from "original sin" and "demons"? It's a fair question, right?
3.Why is the universe rational?
A. This appears to be two questions: Is the Universe rational? And, if so, why? I accept that humans are rational, or, at least capable of reason, but I have no idea what it means to refer to the Universe (by which I mean EVERYTHING there is) as rational. I am not an engineer but I understand we cannot build much of anything complex without the assistance of irrational numbers such as pi and the square root of negative one. If I am correct, that suggests to me the Universe is NOT rational, at least not in all respects. Regardless of the answer to this question, I do not see how gods enter into it.
4.How did DNA and amino acids arise?
A. Not sure if science knows the answer YET. But if it doesn't, it will someday. The answer will produce yet more questions even more difficult to answer. Do you really want to support your belief in God based on the "gaps" in human knowledge? The "god of the gaps" is so Nineteenth Century, don't you agree? I don't mean to "change the subject" on you, but are you a Biblical Literalist? Do you spend as much time questioning the Bible as you do science? Slavery? Genocide? Misogyny? Are you okay with these or am I misunderstanding the plain language of the Bible? Couldn't God have written his revelation in clear, unambiguous language?
5.Where did the genetic code come from?
A. See answer to 4.
6.How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?
A. See answer to 4. Also please recall that realizing the Earth revolved around the Sun was "irreducibly complex" for a long, long time AND flatly contradicted by the Bible. You do agree the Earth revolves around the Sun, right?
7.How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?
A. "116"? Really. Not 115, or 117? We have discovered precisely 116? You are being silly, either intentionally or unwittingly. Human language has been evolving for thousands of years and continues to do so. When did Latin disappear and French, Italian, Spanish, et cetera begin? Which came first the chicken or the egg? THIS kind of analysis convinces you there MUST be a god? Please explain.
8.Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?
A. Am far more interested in YOUR answer to this, than whatever archeology, anthropology and other sciences have to say. Do you believe this somehow demonstrates God was involved? Is the answer staring me in the face in the Bible? Please explain the significance of this ASSUMPTION (My understanding is that cities existed long prior to 3,000BCE).
9.How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
A. Sorry. I really do not see the apparent inconsistency you see. Science still working on how we think, but we DO think. Independently? My thoughts certainly APPEAR to be independent of your thoughts. The world is NOT "ruled" by anyone or anything other than "e=mc2" until someone comes up with a better theory. God don't enter into it. BTW, any reason God has not "revealed" anything since New Testament codified ? When do you contend God's latest revelation took place? Does NT tell us everything we need to know? If not, why not? When you medically diagnose patients, do you use the Bible? If so, how? If not, why not? Just curious.
10.How do we account for self-awareness?
A. That's a tough one, isn't it? Synapses? What is your answer? "God gave it to us." Do you really find that helpful and informative? I think I'll wait for science to observe, experiment and REASON its way to an answer.
11.How is free will possible in a material universe?
A. Who says we have "free will"? How do you even define it? We make choices every day. Do we REALLY have a choice? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? THAT is religion trying to be profound. But it isn't. Religion is on the silly side of this question, not science or Atheism. We have brains and we do not fully understand how they work. What we DO understand comes from science, reason and "worldly knowledge." Do you find it ironic that the Bible contains not one word praising human knowledge? You should because we've accomplished quite a bit by opposing god-myths and superstition masquerading as revelation. Do you believe a snake/serpent spoke to and tempted Eve? Your answer will tell me a lot about you.
12.How do we account for conscience?
A. see answer to 11. Also, evolution. Helping others, avoiding harm to others had significant benefits to everyone, i.e. it was a "selfish" act to be "unselfish." We did not need a god to tell us that. It works.
13.On what basis can we make moral judgements?
A. Is "judgements" with an "e" a typo or a British thing? Either way, we make them based upon our common experience over time. That's why morality changes. Slavery was ALWAYS evil but it took us time to figure that out and come to a consensus. If we listened to your God, slavery would still exist worldwide and would be perfectly moral, as would genocide and misogyny and polygamy. I prefer modern morality to Biblical morality. My meme is winning, albeit not fast enough.
14.Why does suffering matter?
A. Terrible phrasing by you but suffering is to be avoided whenever possible because it opposes human happiness. This is the only life we get (as far as we know) so that making it as pleasant and free from suffering as possible just makes sense. We should also be concerned about the suffering of our fellow species even though god, if he existed, clearly was NOT concerned about it. "Suffering" evolved with the "food chain"/predator and prey/et cetera. No loving god would have designed nature in so bloodthirsty a fashion. Except, apparently, YOUR God. Please respond as you deem appropriate. Nature is not moral. Nature wants to reproduce itself. You know, The Selfish Gene, written by your favorite Atheist.
15.Why do human beings matter?
A. For any and all reasons we decide we matter. You can find NO reason why we matter without God? Look at your wife, your children, your friends. Of all the claims implicit in your twenty questions, this is the most offensive, if not the most evidencing ignorance masquerading as religious ideology. Shame on you.
16.Why care about justice?
A. Because the only alternative (which has been tried) is anarchy and resulting chaos. "Justice" helps to keep us from killing/hurting each other. Blood feuds are costly to society. "Justice"/law codes provide a measure of confidence that people will be treated fairly and, therefore do not need to exact justice on their own. Human justice much better than God's justice. We no longer kill people for picking firewood on the Sabbath; disobeying and being unruly to parents; fucking your aunt, et cetera. We have a long way to go but we have come quite far thanks to contradicting the Bible rather than following it. I would love to hear any disagreement you may have.
17.How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?
A. Human desire for answers in a pre-scientific world unable to provide very many. Unfortunately, this was exacerbated by ascendance of Christianity after Constantine in 309CE. It kept us in the Dark Ages for more than a thousand years and would love to take us back there. Not going to happen. BTW, there is no belief in a personal god/supernatural among most Chinese. Ergo, Belief in Supernatural NOT almost universal, and decreasing at an accelerating rate, but, living in Britain, you are well aware of that fact.
18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist?
A. Technically, we don't. BUT, only technically, because you cannot prove a negative. If gods existed, at least one of them surely would have shown herself to us by now--clearly, unambiguously--"Here I am. This is what I want." Instead, we have myths and folk tales collected hundreds of years afterwards and promulgated as revelation by persons wanting to control other persons. Tough to argue with words/laws given by God himself. Nothing more than a clever and effective control mechanism. What else do you believe without evidence?
19.How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?
A. Easy. We will all die and find out. Has anybody spoken to you from the grave?
20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
A. Assuming facts not in evidence. Gospels are not evidence of anything other than a new iteration of a then three thousand year old myth: Osiris/Mithras/Dionysius. You should know this. Justin Martyr, early church apologist acknowledged these "similarities"/borrowings from long-existing pagan cults/religions and explained them away as "diabolic mimicry," that is, he said the DEVIL pre-planted these myths into history because the DEVIL knew Jesus was coming and wanted to trick people. Clever Devil, huh?
There is NO contemporary evidence Jesus/Yeshua ever lived. There was no resurrection. All three synoptic gospels, written roughly 70CE, 80CE and 90CE, decades after Jesus allegedly lived, tell the story with irreconcilable contradictions--except to believers who do not care about contradictions. "Everything is possible with God."
Finally, the church was quite small and inconsequential until Constantine had his vision and made it the unofficial state sponsored religion in 309CE. That explains its subsequent growth. It also explains why the first Church "Histories" (and I use that term loosely because they made it up as they wrote it down) were written at that time. There was money and power to be had by being part of the State supported Roman Church. "Follow the money" works here as everywhere else to provide explanation and motive.
Are you really arguing that "size matters"? The Mormons are one of the fastest growing religions in America. The FASTEST growing category worldwide is: No religion. But again, living in Britain you already know this.
I have enjoyed responding to your questions and did not find them particularly difficult to the extent I understood them. Compared to trying to defend the Bible, they were a cakewalk. Please let me know how I did.
Richard Dawkins was just selected by Prospect Magazine's panel of distinguished experts as the most impactful knowledgeable person in the world. Not a single Christian apologist made the list.
I hope to hear from you.
With regard to Q.3, I would say that the question itself is wrong. I'm thinking of particle wave duality here.
Richard, introducing p-w duality into the discussion will immediately drive most people away.
Define the word rational so no one will read it in this sense: "Man is a rational being."
Economists use the term rational actor to mean advantage-seeking actor or loss-avoiding actor. Since the universe neither seeks advantage nor avoids losses, this definition fails.
The question needs restatement, perhaps Does reason account for the universe?
Reason can be said to account for the universe in that the laws of physics are reasonable. That is to say, they are consistent with themselves and each other, they are consistent within their own sphere of operation (Newtonian kinematics work fine, just not within an appreciable fraction of the speed of light), and given time, they are knowable.
That is not to say that we know it all here in this moment. I think that Neil deGrasse Tyson once opined that we know maybe 4% of what is out there, though that 4% looks like a lot from the point of view of the ignorance we labored under before we started learning. The point is that there's no magic going on, no effects without causes, no "abracadabra" hand-waving which would introduce a severe discontinuity to what is otherwise a very consistent paradigm.
From the time we started actually learning how reality works, the answer has never been "magic." It never has been, and I'm willing to wager that it never will be.
Loren, I hope you're remembering that Neil Tyson is a showman.
A skilled showman, and one whose vices do not include humility.
Is his evidence for opining 4% better than mine for guessing 10%?
Stating 4, 10, or any number requires knowledge of the totality.
Okay, I confess, my real beef with Tyson is, despite the uncertainties we know, his often-expressed confidence in a big bang explanation. (Please note the bolded word.)
A mere 170 years ago, mathematicians knew nothing of the behavior of parallel lines on a spherical surface.
Despite their lack of knowledge, and despite their lack of knowledge that they lacked knowledge, they hounded the non-euclidian geometers from their Euclid-worshipping society.
Who will say there is no mathematics of singularities, such as the singularity cosmologists assert?
He can be as confident as he wants to be. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence is in his favor, at least in re: the Big Bang theory, and it's not as though he's the only one who subscribes to said theory, not by a long shot. As to his humility, if you ask a question he doesn't know the answer to, I'd bet you a cup of coffee he'd acknowledge his ignorance a lot faster than some idiot-child in a cassock would when asked, "Who made the world?"
As to what what going on 170 years ago, learning and the acquisition of new knowledge is hardly linear. More has been learned in the past 100 years about how this reality works than in all time before then, and the only thing standing in the way of further acceleration is the stupidity of politicians and bible-thumpers who want to push their own agendas. Some parochialism in science is present, sure, but nowhere near the same degree as is evinced by the denizens of Vatican City.
My point remains: when the explanations come (and they will), there will be no magical discontinuities or hocus-pocus involved. There hasn't been to this point, even though quantum physics can try one's patience, and my wager is there never will be.
Loren, you stacked the bet so heavily in your favor (Tyson versus an idiot-child in a cassock!!!) that I won't take it for a cup of coffee that costs only a penny.
The magical discontinuities and hocus-pocus started when an idiot-child in a cassock who'd studied math claimed the universe's entire mass once occupied so little space that an astronomer (Gamow?) satirized the claim with the title "big bang"
The magical discontinuities and hocus-pocus continue each time a cosmologist forgets that mathematical equations AT BEST approximate reality and claims his equations describe reality.
Loren, is that enough heresy for you?
Tom, What is it about Tyson that you dislike? His arrogance, or certainty, or self-confidence that borders on arrogance?
Tom and Loren, What about people such as physicists Richard Feynman, Lawrence Krauss, Brian Greene, and Michio Kaku; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett.
Are there other people you recommend?
"mathematical equations AT BEST approximate reality."
Joan, watch a couple of Tyson's performances. You'll probably enjoy them.
Then grade him on the qualities you named: arrogance, certainty, and self confidence. I'll do the same and then let's compare the grades we gave him.
I've never cared much for Neil Degrasse Tyson myself. I personally find his arrogance-coated performances a little too much to handle. I'll stick with men like Feynman, Krauss, and Hawking for "big bang" related lectures and explanations. For Tyson to claim we know 4% of what can be known is ludicrous at best, and delirium at worst. Granted, it's not remotely approaching the 100% that theists claim to know, but, as Tom said, without an idea of the totality, it's nothing more than guesswork - by a man who should know better. Now it will turn out that he was simply being facetious and we were all too dim-witted to see it... par for the course for myself, I think. Haha
The thing I like about Tyson is his love of astrophysics and his infectious curiosity. He is a performer, of the first order, and he has the wit and wisdom to carry off both science and pleasure ... and excitement. I have emailed him questions several times and he always promptly answers me back ... or his staff does. I caught an error on one program and wrote him about it. He acknowledged my letter and spoke about it on a later program.
His testimony before Congress is thorough, budget aware, he defines the pros and cons of reducing money to science exploration, and he encourages other young scientists. He challenges his fellow pysicist when he disagrees with them, and he listens when his collegues confront him.
So, what is there not to like about the guy?
Tom, any mathematical model is only as good as its ability to predict future behavior, regardless of whether the venue is on the intergalactic scale, as in astronomy, or the molecular / atomic scale as in solid-state physics (my bailiwick). I know for a fact that those equations used to describe the various behaviors of P-N junctions works and damned well. They use them all the time to monitor and correct problems in semiconductor production. They may not be utterly exact, but absolutely good enough to WORK. If they didn't, I would literally be out of a job, as the equipment I work on provides the raw data for test engineers to evaluate the state of the production process as it is. As for astrophysicists (of which Tyson is one), you'd have to ask them, but I would still wager that you would get a similar answer.
As for Tyson's style, I don't see him as arrogant; I see him as engaged and excited by his work. I also see him as being tasked with exciting others about it, as he is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium. It's his goal (stated or not) to excite people about science, something which was easy back in the days of the space race but which now may be far more difficult. He knows his audience well enough not to swamp them with technical terms or details they are not competent to swallow, though in the company of his own kind, I suspect his language would become far more focused and of the discipline which is his specialty.
BTW, it was Georges Lemaître who first posed the concept of the Big Bang. He wasn't an idiot, though he may have worn a cassock, and I'm perfectly willing to credit him with that discovery while at the same time thumbing my nose at his similarly dressed fellows who were still parroting the old saw about "god made the world." Like it or not, the evidence is there and the math works. Cosmic background and microwave radiation and the red-shifting of starlight are well-established facts, as is the increasing acceleration of most of those objects away from us (though we're liable to have a close encounter with Andromeda in a few billion years!) Their calculations may be only approximate, but with more data coming from the Hubble Space Telescope and other resources, I would suspect that those approximations are improving daily.
Tom, if you want to be heretical, get your facts (or theories) straight. The Big Bang works, and from more POVs than I care to count. If you want to overthrow it, you have some heavy lifting to do.
Loren, let's you and I take this discussion off-line.
Can you bear being an A/N "friend" to a heretic?