A new year’s gift for creationists
In the wake of the tragic carnage at Newtown, Connecticut, John Loftus (one of the founders of our Skeptic Ink Network) wrote a piece in his blog, Debunking Christianity, questioning a disaster like this is compatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent (i.e. Judeo-Christian-Islamic) God (we’ll call him Abrahamic for short). In response to this, the creationist website Uncommon Descent came up with a multi-point rejoinder by Vincent Torley, titled “Loftus’ faulty argument for atheism gets an F double minus”. It makes a list of alleged mistakes in John’s writing. The bizarrely condescending title not withstanding, I will attempt here to provide a point-by-point refutation of Torley.
First, however, I would like to point out three problems with the piece as a whole.
1. At first glance, what is pretty odd about Torley’s writing is that most of it is quite irrelevant to what John’s writing. Torley is mostly focused on “other things that could not be explained, barring existence of God”. He uses isolated words in John’s writing to segue to matters that have hardly anthing to do with the subject (such as the argument from “fine tuning” and the evolution of the brain). While for completeness sake I will be addressing those points, I’d like to start by asking how the piece itself, so full of irrelevant material, would be graded academically. I think this is an apt question, given the title.
2. Contrary to Torley’s title, John is not making an argument for atheism. Any type of deity/creator that is not omnipotent and omnibenevolent (say, Tom Paine’s deistic god) could co-exist with tragedies such as mass deaths of children. So John’s piece is merely a refutation of the Abrahamic version of God, leaving the broader question of “creator(s)” untouched. But Torley’s piece largely focuses on arguments for existence of creator(s). Hence, his writing is worse than irrelevant; even if true, it wouldn’t contradict John’s writings.
3. The thrust of Torley’s arguments is that science cannot account for things such as the existence of the universe, or for life. He then concludes the John is wrong, since the hypothesis of non-existence of God does not account for these findings. But as is well known, this is a cop out. If we don’t have the answer to a question, that doesn’t mean that a made up answer without direct evidence is the correct explanation. In the case of Torley, it is even worse: we have no idea whatsoever how this God works, or how it interacts with the universe. Until we are given answers for these questions, a self contained universe remains a more plausible one that a universe created by some deity.
Now on to the details.
Torley starts off by criticizing John’s choice of wording, and the timing of his piece.
The poor taste in Loftus’ choice of the title left me at a loss for words. It is inappropriate to use point to such an event as an argument for atheism, at a time when parents are grieving. And for my part, I do not wish to add to their pain by trying to find a “reason” for the senseless tragedy that happened in Newtown. Children are dead, and there’s nothing good about that.
Really? Well, then, why is his criticism targeted at John, rather than the long parade of religious figures who have blamed atheists for the carnage? Which one is worse? At least John is not blaming anyone unfairly for what happened.
He then proceeds to John’s alleged mistakes. Here is first one:
If you’re going to evaluate the probability of a hypothesis (e.g. “There is a God” or “There is no God”) given the evidence (a senseless tragedy), then there are two things you need to know. The first is the probability of the evidence, given the hypothesis (or its negative), and the gist of Loftus’ argument is that the probability of senseless tragedies is much higher if there isn’t a God than if there is one. The second thing you need to know is the prior probability that the hypothesis is true – that is, the antecedent likelihood (in the absence of evidence) that there is a God, or (alternatively) that there isn’t one. Without that number, you simply cannot compute the probability of your hypothesis, given the evidence.
The problem with this statement is that you cannot assign a prior probability to something without direct evidence. No matter what kind of prior probability you come up with, it is going to be subjective. Torley himself would likely have assigned a high prior probability to an Abrahamic God, and a very low probability to a Hindu or Pagan one. Hence, John did not make a mistake by failing to give a value of his own; any such number would be arbitrary. The issue is, if your hypothesis is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, then existence of evil pretty much nullifies that hypothesis, no matter what value you assign to your prior probability.
If you were trying to decide whether there was a God or not, you wouldn’t focus on what Loftus calls “this horrible tragedy” to the exclusion of all else; you’d examine the totality of the evidence that was relevant to your argument. The argument that Loftus is putting forward here is the Argument from Evil. If you were attempting to decide whether the existence of evil renders God’s existence unlikely, you would need to look at the totality of good and evil in the world before making up your mind. Why? Well, it might be the case that the “no-God” hypothesis explained senseless acts of violence very well, but was utterly unable to explain most of the other good or bad events in this world, while the God hypothesis explained most of the good or bad events in the world very well, but not the meaningless violence.
Torley does not seem to be taking into the consideration the fact that we are talking about an OMINBENEVOLENT God. The Abrahamic God is supposed to be good, always and to everyone, not sometimes, to some. Hence, you don’t have to look at all examples of good or evil to conclude whether such a God exists. That would be a useful analysis for a “relatively” good God, not an absolutely good one. John made no mistake here either.
Remember that the “no-God” hypothesis simply denies the existence of “an all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity.” However, the “no-God” hypothesis makes no prior assumptions regarding the truth of physicalism, so we have to consider two variants: one in which physicalism is false, and the existence of spirits is permitted, and one in which physicalism is true, and the existence of spirits is not permitted.
In order to succeed, Loftus’ argument from evil really needs to distinguish between threepossible hypotheses:
1. Physicalism is false, and an all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity exists; . 2. Physicalism is false, and no all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity exists, but spirits of varying levels of power, goodness and knowledge may exist. 3. Physicalism is true, and therefore no all powerful, perfectly good, all knowing deity exists, and no spirits exist either.
I must admit I found this part of Torley’s writing the most confusing and hardest to follow. What does the exitence, or lack thereof, of “good” or “evil” spirits have to do with John’s writing? John was simply trying to show there could not be an overarching, all good power in the world. If you want to throw in spirits, why not witches or fairies? No mistake on John’s part.
The “mistakes” continue:
If you’re going to seriously defend the hypothesis that we live in a godless universe, then you still need to account for the mere fact that we live in a universe at all – especially when theists commonly use the fine-tuning argument as a powerful reason for believing in a Deity.
As explained earlier, John’s writing is not about a “generic” deity, but the Abrahamic one. So what Torley is saying is, at best, irrelevant. John can’t even be expected to give the best answer to this argument because he is not a physicist. But Torley has indeed interacted with prominent physicists who do not agree with his claim, including a piece written by Sean Carroll (at Torley’s invitation, no less). Torley’s current writing makes no mention of that.
But the “fine tuning” argument itself is not one that makes so much sense, unless you are talking about a deity that is inefficient in a cosmic scale (excuse the pun). The fine tuning argument claims that we are living in a universe that is designed specifically to harbor life. However, according to modern physics, over 90% of what exists in the universe is dark matter and dark energy, and they cannot possibly support life. Of the stuff that is more familiar to us, most of it is empty space, again incapable of supporting life. Even star systems and planets are, by and large, not hospitable for life. Astronomers have been searching for such a system for decades, and so far they have come up empty handed. Human existence is limited to a dot we call Earth, orbiting a star named the Sun, one of many billions in the Milky Way galaxy, itself one out of hundreds of billions. But those who the Bible and the Koran for some reason forgot to tell us that the number one “infinite” attribute of the God they were describing was wastefulness and carelessness. I have no problem if Torley wants to believe in such a god, but I somehow doubt that this kind of god would be particularly bothered by the murder of children in Connecticut. John did not make a mistake by not discussing this subject. (I can hear Torley saying God couldn’t do it any other way, but then, God is not omnipotent; see below.)
Next alleged mistake:
The occurrence of senseless suffering might provide a strong reason for rejecting the hypothesis that there is a God, but the difficulty of accounting for life’s origin as a result of unguided physical processes may constitute a far more powerful reason for accepting the God hypothesis, making belief in God much more rational than unbelief.
Once again, this does not support the existence of the Abrahamic God, just a generic deity. (Or in this case, intelligent aliens from outer space.) Torley then proceeds to cite the literature on various difficulties scientists have encountered explaining the origin of life. Yet as mentioned earlier, inserting a deity does not solve the problem, it only makes it more complicated. Just as Torley could react to the question of “where did the aliens come from”, a skeptic can ask “where did God come from?”. Only in the case of aliens we have an idea of how they might be interacting with the natural world; in the case of god(s), we don’t.
The origin of life is a difficult question. Yet despite all the obstacles the scientists haven’t given up looking, and that is a good thing. Torley, for example, may not have seen this recent article (not mentioned in his piece). Regardless of whether the current hypotheses are valid or not, it is generally not such a good idea to stop looking and pull a deity when we don’t have the answer. I wouldn’t be writing today on a computer if we had gone by the Vikings’ explanation that lightning was an act of Thor. John make as much of a “mistake” here as Benjamin Franklin did when he did his experiments with lightning.
Next “mistake”: after quoting John on predation and suffering of animal, he offers this response:
“Life is predatory from the ground up. Creatures eat one anotherby trapping unsuspecting victims in unusual ways, launching surprise attacks out of the blue, and hunting in packs by overpowering prey with brute force and numbers.” [Quote from John Loftus]
Stop right there, Mr. Loftus! You’re seriously maintaining that predation is something “without rhyme or reason”?
…Presumably Loftus will reply that he meant to say that predation is without rhyme or reason, morally speaking, and that God could have made a universe with a different set of laws, in which predation was not necessary. This kind of reasoning exemplifies what I call the Pegasus fallacy: the fallacy of assuming that because we can picture something, it must be possible. I can picture Pegasus – but when I start asking myself detailed questions about how he would fly, my picture breaks down. In short: we simply do not know whether God can build a life-friendly universe with a set of laws allowing all animals (including sentient and sapient ones) to obtain their energy requirements on an ongoing basis, without killing other organisms. Loftus says he can imagine one. Fine, but I would challenge him to specify its physical laws. All we know is that in this universe, sentient life – and sapient life – isn’t possible without at least some predation.
This really puzzles me here. We are expected to believe in a God that is, among other things, omnipotent. Yet we are also told that we don’t know if he can do certain things? Well, which is it? And why is it John’s problem to specify the physical laws of a universe without predation? Doesn’t Torley believe in a God that can suspend laws of physics at will (like, by coming back from the dead)? Why would physical laws at all matter if God cared to eliminate suffering? And yes, in this universe, sentient life is not possible without some predation, but maybe that means this universe does not have an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevoltent creator. If God is omnipotent, but then, not really, how is that John’s mistake?
Lat “mistake”: just more argument from improbability, the type you get all the time from creationists.
What Loftus is assuming here is that creatures with human brains are capable of evolving in the first place, given the time available. The fact is, however, that the human brain is an enormously complex thing – it’s orders of magnitude more complex than the most advanced computer ever built, or even the Internet. I put it to Loftus that if intelligent human beings are incapable of creating anything which matches the complexity of the brain, then how much less so is unguided evolution.
He then proceeds to present an article from the “Journal of Cosmology”, which purportedly calculates that the evolution of human brain, given the time available, would have been impossible.
Arguments from “irreducible complexity” (that certain traits could not have evolved, or would have taken too long to evolve, given their level of complexity) have been thoroughly refuted before. Most famously, biologist Kenneth Miller showed at the Dover trial that while a mousetrap (set up as an example of complexity be creationists) needs all of its parts at once to function, a much simpler system with only some of those parts could also be functional, albeit that could be for a different function.
As for the article appearing in the Journal of Cosmology, it is worth noting that while it bills itself as peer-reviewed, it is fairly new and its credibility has been questioned, as it has been promoting fringe and hard-to-verify viewpoints. For example, the “Journal” is infamous for this:
In early March 2011, the journal drew widespread criticism for the publication of a paper by Richard B. Hoover (a NASA engineer) which discusses “the implications of the detection of fossils of cyanobacteria in the CI1 meteorites to the possibility of life on comets, Europa and Enceladus.” The journal dismissed the criticism as “a barrage of slanderous attacks” from “crackpots and charlatans”, calling themselves “heroic” for resisting the “terrorists” whose actions they equated with the Inquisition. NASA distanced itself from Hoover’s findings, and issued a statement saying that the paper had been previously submitted in 2007 to International Journal of Astrobiology where it was rejected for publication.
If there is someone who made a mistake by quoting the Journal of Cosmology, it is not John.
Conclusion [Torley's words, with my objections following]
I hope that Loftus will come to realize that his Argument from Evil is badly flawed, and that it makes a lot of unwarranted assumptions. [Flawed? Unwarranted assumptions?Is Torley's talking about his own writing?]
I hope, too, that the tragedies that occur in this world will not cause him to forget the goodness and beauty that we see all around us. This, too, needs to be explained, and its existence is far more puzzling on a “no-God” hypothesis than the existence of senseless evil is if we accept the reality of God. [Truth is, nature is neither kind nor unkind]
I will conclude by wishing John Loftus a Happy New Year. [Same to you, Vincent Torley]