Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

The most common argument for the existence of God these days seems to be the Argument from Design.  Other arguments have come and gone, but the Design Argument remains popular.  I want to finally put this argument to rest.

The argument has several variations, but it usually points out that in order for life to exist, a large number of physical constants must be within extremely narrow ranges.  This is true.  Given a random distribution of values, the likelihood of our universe having exactly the constants that it does is infinitesimally small.  It appears as though it was made for life.

However, even within this exquisitely fine-tuned universe, 99.99999???% of it is uninhabitable.  Most of it is vast emptiness.  We are aware of billions of stars and an increasingly large number of planetary systems that don’t support life.  Even on our own planet, in this tiny corner of the universe, the conditions for life are limiting.  Life doesn’t thrive on earth’s deserts, from Sahara to Antarctica, and beyond certain temperature extremes.  If you increase your altitude to just 10 miles — thinner than the paint on a desktop globe — you would not be able to survive for a prolonged period of time due to the low temperature and lack of oxygen.

When viewed in that light, the universe doesn’t appear well suited to life.  Life struggles to survive in an exceptionally narrow range of this supposedly fine-tuned universe.

Further, I don’t see how anyone could argue that biological systems are well-designed.  There are thousands of known hereditary diseases, which means there are thousands of ways for the human body to fail.  We spend more as a percentage of GDP on medicine — the organized effort to control organic design failure — than just about anything else.  And that doesn’t include all the environmental insults and communicable diseases (as if the innate design of the body wasn’t bad enough, God had to throw in thousands of other hurdles to thwart our ability to live, right?).

No, livings things do not exhibit good design.  They exhibit a patchwork of good and bad designs, struggling against each other to survive — which is exactly what we would expect from a system that builds complexity through selection pressures on random modifications and historical constraints.

Every engineer knows that good design involves compartmentalization of subsystems, so if one part of the system fails, the whole system doesn’t have to fail.  Yet what we see in living things is pleiotropy — parts get reused in many places, and the various subsystems constitute overlapping networks (that’s why drugs have side-effects).  That’s bad design!

And why would a god produce a Creation that was innately pitted against itself?  Predator against prey, parasite against host.  It’s certainly not a harmonious existence.  On the other hand, ecosystem dynamics are perfectly in accordance with what we would expect from evolutionary agents sampling the behavior space for local fitness maximization.

Finally, what about those constants?  Why are they so fine-tuned?  We don’t know.  One hypothesis  holds that we live in a multiverse, and that each universe takes on different values for those constants.  Some are capable of supporting self-organizing chemistry (which is all that life is, at bottom), and some are not.  Naturally, we would only end up in one that does, and we would marvel at how exquisitely designed it was “just for us.”

We have no evidence for the multiverse explanation, but then, we have no evidence for the existence of gods either.  Without evidence to arbitrate between these explanations, they are equally likely.  So you can’t claim that fine-tuning of the physical constants is ipso facto evidence of gods.  I provided one alternative explanation, but there could be many more.  Our inability to formulate better answers doesn’t make the ones that we have correct.

And it seems to me that the explanation involving a Supernatural Man, especially a Supernatural Man with all the character flaws of earthly humans, including jealousy and anger and vindictiveness, isn’t the best explanation we can come with.  It’s the kind of explanation we would expect from primitive people who couldn’t think beyond their own psychosocial paradigm.

We can do better than to commit a Mind Projection Fallacy in order to explain the universe.  The Argument from Design is insufficient.


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So he did it.  PZ Myers desecrated an allegedly blessed communion wafer by driving a rusty nail through it and pegging it to a few pages of the Koran and The God Delusion.

I think it’s the best blog post PZ has ever written.  He takes the time to put the historical rantings and lunacy surrounding the Eucharist into context.  Given the historical actions of the Catholic Church and its followers, you should feel like a fool if this desecration upsets you.

PZ summarizes the Catholic reaction to threats of a desecration quite poignantly: “In my years of loud and often inflammatory blogging, it is the most impressive demonstration of mass lunacy I have ever seen.”

There’s really not much to add.  Just read the post.

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This is the most brilliant exchange on Pharyngula so far:

Phil #306 wrote:

Most of the Email P.Z. received appeared to be well reasoned. I didn’t see any crazy death threats. It is what I expected to see.

Since Phil is a Catholic, he may have a valid point. You see, the substance of the letters was indeed reasonable. The parts of the letters which we could read were only the appearances, which are visible to the senses. Those may have seemed irrational, overblown, hysterical, histrionic, violent, or puerile, true — but only to the eyes of the world. And the worldly.

What they were in themselves, the underlying reality, was well reasoned.

It’s another miracle!

Written by Sastra.  I wonder if that’s the same Sastra who frequents DALnet.

The myth of transubstantiation is based on an Aristotelian/Thomist view of the world, that there is some underlying substance or essence that permeates an object, and which may not or cannot be observed, and in consequence, empirically validated.  The waveparticles that constitute the wafer are detectable and will continue to reveal a processed wheat product, but the essence changes into the body of Christ.  You can’t demonstrate it empirically, you just have to take the Church’s word for it.

Of course, Aristotelian physics is nonsense because it can’t be validated in any reasonable way.  How do you validate something that can’t be observed in principle?  Evidence is the causal connection between our beliefs and reality, and we have no reason to believe something for which evidence does not or cannot exist.

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The saga continues over at Pharyngula.  The relevant posts are summarized here:


Now I’ve got Bill Donohue’s attention

Fresh crackers!

Fight back against Bill Donohue!

Internet getting full…

Can this possibly get any more instane?

I get email — special cracker edition!

Some Catholics are upset over the fact that PZ Myers suggested he would desecrate a blessed communion wafer (which contains the “body of Christ,” in Catholic mythology) and post the results on his blog.  The Catholic League, spearheaded by apopleptic curmedgeon Bill Donohue, is being particularly aggressive, suggesting that he should be sanctioned by his employer, the University of Minnesota – Morris, because his university page contained a link to his blog.  He continues to be unapologetically critical of cracker doctrine.

And why shouldn’t he be?  Some have suggested that atheists are being hypocritical, preaching tolerance on one hand, and showing contempt and hostility toward religion on the other.  However, there is a distinction between those we defend with pleas for tolerance and those we criticize.  It is wrong to treat people with disrespect because of who they are — whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  However, people choose their beliefs and actions, so those are fair game.

If someone robs a convenience store, we are perfectly justified in criticizing that person for his actions.  And if someone claims that they were abducted by UFOs, or they talk to dead people, or they can heal your illness through magic, or a pantheon of gods lives in the sky, or a Hebrew man rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, we are perfectly justified in criticizing them, and even treating them with contempt and disrespect if their beliefs are truly absurd or even injurious to themselves or others.  To many rationalists, truth is a moral value.  It is not subjective.  The state of the universe is not a matter of opinion.  There is an objective arbiter: empirical evidence and rational thought.

We will not back down to the forces of superstition, mysticism, and magical, muddled, irrational thinking.  We will never back down from that fight.

Others have suggested, as one “Amy” does in the comments on Pharyngula, that: “The Holy Eucharist is the body of Christ. If you don’t believe it, that is fine. Then please do not partake or desecrate it. Leave it alone.”  So, should we refrain from eating beef because cows are holy to Hindus?  Should we refrain from eating pork or bacon because eating pigs is forbidden in Judaism?  Should we refrain from killing bugs because killing any living thing is forbidden in Jainism?  Why is Catholicism privileged?  Why is it set aside as special, such that only its myths should be respected and kept immune from criticism (I take the “desecration” of a “holy” object like a communion wafer as a form of political speech viz-a-viz established United States law)?

If we were to genuflect to the sensitivies of every provincial superstition, there wouldn’t be a lot that we could do.  No, we live in a modern, pluralistic, democratic society, with a secular government, and we should be free to challenge all beliefs.  There are no sacred beliefs.  There are no opinions, superstitions, myths, or rituals that are legally or morally immune to criticism.

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The Catholic League is trying to get PZ Myers fired from his job at UMM.  His blog post on the matter has received almost over 400 comments in the first three hours after being published.  Myers, as always, responds in his witty, acerbic, and articulate style. This is going to be interesting to watch.

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The trailer for Bill Maher’s Religulous is out.  You can watch it at TrailerSpy.  It was originally slated to come out this summer, but looks like it has been pushed back to 3 October in the US.

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