Saturday, February 8, 2014
Friday, August 16, 2013
The Myth of Morality
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
One of the more irksome tendencies of Christians, and of theists broadly, is to pretend that atheists are a monolithic group whose views, in all meaningful ways, are uniform and identical; this thinking is, of course, mistaken, as a great deal of theistic thinking must be insofar as theists cling to an evidentially untenable belief in god and, thus, subscribe to a worldview whose centerpiece seems to be fictive. Atheism comes in many flavors and varieties, one of which is the deep humanism of Carl Sagan, who writes, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” Such a point of view could scarcely be more different from that of the nihilist, as which I identify myself. More specifically, I am persuaded of the truth of both moral nihilism and existential nihilism, the former referring to the view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral and the latter referencing the belief that life (human and non-human alike) has no intrinsic meaning or value.
Insofar as human beings are moral creatures—by which I strictly mean creatures who are imbued with a moral sense and an inclination to make moral judgments—the point of view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral…righteous or wicked…virtuous or contemptible…tends not only to strike most people as counterintuitive but, indeed, to appall them. “Surely,” they will exclaim, “there must be something that you can describe as objectively, categorically immoral,” and then will proceed to list any number of perceived horrors: rape, butchery, torture, slavery, genocide, etc. Some who disagree will even imply that if my worldview does not permit a categorical condemnation of, say, the torture of children, then that is evidence that my worldview is wrong since, they say, no veracious worldview could entail so “odious” a consequence as moral nihilism. Such individuals, of course, have fallen into arguing from adverse consequences, a logical fallacy; the truth-value of some factual proposition [X] is not determined by the desirableness of any consequence [Y] resulting from factual proposition [X] being true.
So, one might ask, what is my worldview anyway? In accordance with what worldview have I been persuaded of the truth of both moral nihilism and existential nihilism, despite the perceived monstrousness of both? The principal viewpoint to which I subscribe is evidentialism, roughly stated this way: “The confidence with which one can believe any proposition that aspires to be a statement of truth is directly proportional to the amount, strength and conclusiveness of the evidence adduced to substantiate the proposition.” I am only an atheist because my view of moral and existential nihilism entails atheism, and I am only a moral and existential nihilist because my evidentialist First Principle makes it impossible—based on current evidence—to believe in intrinsic morality, meaning or value; as such, evidentialism as an axiomatic First Principle is primary, with all derived views (nihilism, atheism, etc.) subordinate thereto. If one wanted to try to convince me that the torture of children was categorically morally proscribed, one would have to adduce evidence to substantiate that proposition.
What tends to addle the thinking of generally rational people when it comes to morality is the ease with which they shift from factual observations about what is to value judgments about what ought. Let’s continue with the torture of children as our example, starting from a moral assertion (meant as a categorical statement of fact) made by a hypothetical interlocutor: “Torturing children is immoral.” As an evidentialist, I would begin by asking, “Why is it immoral?” I can imagine a number of possible “evidences” this individual might offer, but I think a perfectly plausible one to expect would be, “Because torturing children causes them excruciating pain and agony for no reason.” So, I would ask, “Why is it immoral to cause them excruciating pain and agony for no reason?” My hypothetical interlocutor, to this point, has failed to elucidate the connection between behavior [X] (torture of children) entailing consequence [Y] (pain and agony) and behavior [X] somehow being “immoral.”
This conversation could go on in perpetuity because at the heart of the claim that behavior [X] is immoral is a slide to a value judgment. The reason this individual claims torturing children is immoral is that he or she holds to the foundational moral belief (assumption, that is) that causing excruciating pain and agony for no reason is wrong (that one ought not to do it). In essence, that foundational moral assumption, to that individual’s mind, could be called a “moral fact,” seeming to need no further support or justification. But, inasmuch as I start from an evidentialist First Principle, and the claim that “causing excruciating pain and agony for no reason is wrong” seems quite definitely to be a proposition that aspires to be a statement of truth, my confidence in that proposition can only be directly proportional to the amount, strength and conclusiveness of the evidence adduced to substantiate it. If it’s simply taken for granted—that is, if it’s assumed with no evidence having been adduced—then my confidence in the proposition is zero.
Let me reiterate that I have no presuppositional allegiance to either the non-existence of moral facts or the valuelessness of human life. My sole presupposition is my evidentialist First Principle, from which my secondary and tertiary philosophical ideas flow and in accordance with which those subordinate ideas are subject to revision in light of new evidence of the requisite conclusiveness and strength. It is simply that, if one wants to convince me that moral facts exist—such as, for example, that it is immoral to hurt people for no reason—one must do the hard work of adducing evidence. The mere fact that humans, as noted, are imbued with a moral sense and a predisposition to make value judgments does not get the ball very far down the court, as it were, because the scientific community has done an estimable job explicating the Darwinian roots of Homo sapiens sapiens’ common moral fabric.
From a Darwinian point of view, living things are just machines the purpose of which is to aid in replicating the genes that built them; on Darwinian theory, as Richard Dawkins observes, our genes are actually a “duplicate me” program that happens to build humans (tigers, grizzlies, etc.) as a digression that, nevertheless, is an essential part of the “duplicate me” program’s efficient execution. Natural selection would select for a moral sense—and an adherence to particular moral rules—if doing so would increase reproductive fitness and lead to more copies of genes reaching successive generations. Why do humans generally view theft, mendacity and wanton selfishness as immoral? The answer, according to many in the scientific community, is because those behaviors tend to cause social groups to break down and, as a result, members of the community suffer diminished fitness (fewer copies of their genes reaching successive generations). Thus, Darwinian selective pressures would deem those fitness-inhibiting behaviors “immoral,” whereas Darwinian selective pressures would deem fitness-boosting behaviors “moral.” It has nothing to do with intrinsic moral facts…just what facilitates gene replication.
Setting aside crudely functional moral instincts that facilitate the Darwinian imperative to reproduce and have reproducing progeny, a world devoid of moral facts (as ours seems to be) necessarily renders all ostensibly factual moral statements not merely wrong but, in fact, absurd. Using Bertrand Russell’s example of the present king of France, the statement, “The present king of France is bald”—or the opposing statement, “The present king of France is not bald”—presupposes in its structure that there is a present king of France. Because there is not, both statements suffer from “presupposition failure” and, therefore, are more properly described as absurd than as false. To say, “It is immoral for Bob to enslave Deb because he feels like it” is neither a true statement nor a false one; it’s an absurd statement because it presupposes a moral fact (“It is immoral to enslave people because you feel like it”) that, based on current evidence, doesn’t exist.
Some people—including myself, on occasion—recognize the untenability of objective morality but yet, owing to our innate disposition as morality-minded beings, slip into moral language not as a means of making a statement that aspires to be a factual proposition but, rather, as a means of expressing personal approval or disapproval. By this, I mean that someone who says, “The Holocaust was immoral” might not intend to declare, “The genocidal butchery of millions of people is, factually speaking, immoral.” Instead, it might simply be a morality-minded creature’s way of saying, “I didn’t like the Holocaust and I disapprove of it.” Such a statement is categorically different from claiming that the Holocaust was factually immoral; a statement of dislike and disapproval merely describes one’s reaction to a particular behavior or incident, whereas a statement about the behavior or incident being moral or immoral aspires to describe the moral character of the behavior or incident. Evidentialism is perfectly consonant with expressions of like and dislike…approval and disapproval…because there is plentiful evidence that conscious creatures like us can like, dislike, approve of and disapprove of various things.
Perhaps our evolutionarily inculcated moral instincts are so strong that to recognize that the world seems devoid of moral facts—pending evidence of the requisite conclusiveness and strength to upend that conclusion—would strike us as too much to bear…as too horrid to abide. Although the conclusion might seem awful, we must be careful not to fall prey to wishful thinking and pretend as though we are justified in believing things for which little or no evidence has been adduced merely because believing those things would be “pleasant.”
For example, it’s perfectly agreeable to believe that humans have rights merely by virtue of our humanity, but, much as with the fictive moral facts that litter our consciousness, no compelling evidence has ever substantiated the existence of intrinsic, naturally existing rights. All claims of such rights betray a deep-seated anthropocentrism that assumes without evidence or argument that distinctly human traits (i.e., self-awareness, the capacity for abstract thought) confer greater intrinsic value than distinctly bovine (porcine, avian, etc.) traits confer. And, worse yet, no mechanism has been proposed whereby such hypothetical intrinsic value might be reliably demonstrated even to exist. Intrinsic value that has not been shown to exist can scarcely be a solid foundation for naturally existing “rights” that, themselves, seem to have been pulled from the ether and of whose existence we’ve found neither hide nor hair, evidentially speaking.
Finally, I turn to the question of livableness: That is, is the worldview I am espousing one within whose bounds one can actually live? If that question is posed as a test for a worldview’s veracity, let me admit my considerable skepticism. Suppose, for example, that a man were hopelessly, endlessly devoted to his sister such that, if his sister were to die, the man would immediately commit suicide. If that man’s sister were to die, I see two possible outcomes: either the man would recognize that his sister had died and, thus, commit suicide, or perhaps the man would create a delusional fantasy (à la Ed Gein) in which his sister was still living. In this invented scenario, the truth (the man’s sister is dead) would not be livable but a delusional fantasy (the man’s sister is still alive) would be quite livable and, in fact, would be the sole means of preventing the man’s self-annihilation. It might be the case that looking at the world head on, unblinking and unflinching, is more than one could handle and, therefore, one must submit (consciously or unconsciously) to some number of delusions to trudge on. The necessity of delusions, however, would do nothing to undermine what the facts actually are.
Christopher Hitchens, speaking of supernatural imaginings, writes, “It has taken us a long time to shrug off this heavy coat of ignorance and fear….” It will take us still longer to relinquish the meretricious myth of morality.
Monday, September 3, 2012
Extraterrestrial Life as a Statistical Certainty
If Darwin illuminated biology by removing the need for a creator, and the Copernican Revolution demythologized astronomy by removing Earth from the center of anything, then perhaps this statistical argument will give the lie to religion-fueled delusions about life on Earth, including humans like us, being special...let alone lovingly and uniquely created.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
Exploding Comfortable, Comforting Myths
Sunday, July 15, 2012
god's Farcical Role as 'Explanation'
Monday, February 13, 2012
Just A Thought
Friday, October 7, 2011
What the Hell?
As a former Christian who lives in a country in which that faith dominates—and as an ex-believer who is now a lonely atheist in a large extended family teeming with (admittedly Catholic-flavored) Christians—it can be difficult to step entirely out of Christian thought, even when, intellectually, I remain wholly unpersuaded by the supposed evidence meant to support Jesus as savior. I have had family members tell me that they pray for me, imploring god, I suppose, to show me the light and guide me from my infidelic ways; others have told me that, from their perspective, my life must be in some way bankrupt, what with the lack of something in which to believe, such as a benevolent divinity or the mythology of the United States as John Wayne-esque hero nation. To them, awe of science is a poor substitute for spiritual fulfillment, which it, perhaps, is, although I have little appetite for superficially palatable falsehood. And, to them, one’s satisfaction with his supposed acquisition of knowledge seems rather hollow when compared to an eternity of damnation.
I departed from the Christian faith about a decade ago, right around the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, although my apostasy had tremendously more to do with my studies during that period at Hofstra University than with any moral outrage at the acts religion can inspire. As I took courses in anthropology, biology, philosophy and even literature, I came to realize that the compartmentalization of my mind, which I had already begun to implement, was untenable: I could not be a believing Christian, who accepted the bible as basically true, in one compartment while amassing my knowledge of the species and the cosmos in another one. With surprising haste, the soul was exorcised from the corpus, god was removed from human evolution, fine-tuning slinked away into the dustbin of bad ideas and I, in a real sense, was liberated from nearly two decades of carefully inculcated delusion.
Still, though, being an ex-Christian is not the same as never having been Christian in the first place. My feelings toward Christianity and, indeed, my susceptibility to Christian ideas are qualitatively different from those feelings and that susceptibility with respect to Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or any other faith among the countless multitudes. I recall Christopher Hitchens, writing in Vanity Fair last October while in the midst of battling cancer, admitting, “As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business,” although he quickly added, “though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be ‘me.’” And that is the thing: Even a staunch atheist such as me—one who, as an evidentialist, has tried to look at the evidence objectively and, in so doing, has had his non-belief repeatedly reaffirmed—is not immune to occasional frightful thoughts of being consigned to an eternity of agonizing punishment in hellfire.
Christian writers of decades and centuries past have seemed to take an almost perversely sadistic glee in describing the various tortures, torments, agonies and excruciations of hell; gospel descriptions about weeping and gnashing of teeth seem the very picture of restraint compared to, say, the fetishistic torture-porn that is Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” When one was formerly a Christian believer—and, again, remains ensnared in a Jesus-saturated culture and possesses a family that regularly discusses dead loved ones’ reunion with other deceased relatives in heaven—this has power. When others warn one about the dark fate sure to befall his sinful soul, it is hard not to harbor a bit of fright and even, in those most pathetic moments, fear that can be quite acute.
In earthly life, it is perfectly natural to fear having a cavity filled by the dentist due to the few moments of pain it might involve. And, it is standard practice to avoid relatively minor pains by taking protective action, such as by wearing oven mitts so as not to burn one’s fingertips. I know that, speaking personally, I avoid pain at all costs, sometimes depriving myself of things that might be enjoyable or exciting simply because the cost-benefit analysis contains too high a risk of pain occurring. This is to say, I anticipate the possibility (not even necessarily the probability) of pain and, as a result, modify my behavior to bring that possibility down to effectively zero. But, were hell actually to exist, and were it, in the slightest, to resemble Jonathan Edwards’ horrific imaginings, the pain in store for the sinning hordes would shrink every torment with which we are familiar to nothingness. Surely, then, it would make sense for me—if not now, then before I expire—to return to Christianity and repent my atheistic agitation, yes?
No, no, a thousand times no. I am an evidentialist not because I idolize this scientist or that philosopher…not because others easily lead me and I fall under influence…but, rather, because I truly believe the evidentialist principle is the best way to approximate truth. And, no matter what my relatives believe or what a large majority of Americans hold as true, I do not believe the Christian revelation; the evidence, where sought, is often nonexistent and, where actually found, is ultimately insufficient. I do not believe the Old Testament recounts actual events, nor do I believe in Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, nor do I believe that humans have souls, much less that these immaterial souls go to an immaterial place following corporeal death. This leaves me, then, with but a single motivating factor to reconvert to Christianity: fear of terrible punishment for failing to have done so.
I do not believe in any gods, but I especially do not believe—indeed, would consider it insulting to believe—in a god who looks favorably upon a person whose sole motivating factor in following the deity is craven, pathetic, self-serving fear of punishment. I find it inconceivable that a supposed glorified creator of the universe—a being who, if existent, would be the author of all creation and separator of the righteous from the wicked—would be pleased with a throng of followers who do not love him or revere him or, indeed, even really believe in him, but only choose to prostrate themselves before him because of their pusillanimous terror. I cannot guarantee that, moments before my death, I will not repent of my atheism and turn skyward desperately, but, as Hitchens observed, such would be a humiliation: both for me and for any supposed god.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Although, as noted, “nihilist” is the most important appellation that I apply to myself, it is worthwhile to explain, especially given my relentless criticism of the religion, exactly why I reject biblical Christianity and embrace atheism. The reasons are numerous and include the flood—the word just seems right—of absurd claims contained within the bible's pages (not absurd in the sense of being self-contradictory but, rather, in the sense of failing utterly to comport with the world of experience as we all collectively know it), the text's seeming incompatibility with Darwinian evolution and a 13.7 billion-year-old universe, prayer's uselessness in actually effecting desired results, people's pronounced tendency to embrace the religion of their parents and peers, and the problem of statistical improbability regarding a hugely complex being—god—simply existing without a satisfactory explanation of origins. There are, however, three principal reasons I reject Christianity, each of which is probably sufficient to falsify the faith and that, when taken collectively, ring its unmistakable death knell for all but the most presuppositionally committed.
Second, the bible, despite the fact it is purported to be inspired by god himself, wallows in pitiable prescientific primitivism and yawn-inducing mundanity. Certainly, considering its alleged divine inspiration, one might expect the bible to be full of dazzlingly specific information of which no one had been previously aware. In light of its purported inspiration, one might expect the pinnacle of all intellectual achievement. This is not so. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, writes, “[The bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.” There is nothing about the actual age or size of our universe. There is nothing about the germ theory of disease, heliocentric theory of the solar system or atomic theory of matter. Earth's vast geography is shrunk down to claustrophobically local levels. It is not even clear from the bible whether the creator of our universe is aware of Australia. The bible is not a product of divine inspiration but, rather, lamentable ancient ignorance.
Third, I am not a Christian because worship of Yahweh as the singular creator deity did not arise independently among numerous geographically isolated populations. Any delusional belief system, if designed with sufficient cleverness, has the potential to “catch fire,” as it were, and spread pervasively throughout our species. Much less easily explained, however, would be for the same delusional belief system to arise independently—as though through universal identical revelation—in many different places. Imagine if, around 2000 BCE, worship of Yahweh had arisen, nearly simultaneously, in the Middle East, China, the Americas and central Africa. What would the odds have been of an identical god character—with distinctive quirks, commandments, preferences and fetishes—having been invented by completely different populations? They seem infinitesimal. There is, however, no evidence of Yahweh-worship arising independently among geographically isolated groups. However spiritual they might previously have been, primitive populations began to worship Yahweh specifically when believers in Yahweh arrived at their shores: The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity's message, therefore, is spread by the veritable Pony Express method of human beings.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
Where I Stand
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Gaining Proper Perspective
1. The universe is far older and unspeakably more enormous than the average person realizes. The universe was born 13.75 billion years ago, and Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago. The Milky Way is but one galaxy, among hundreds of billions of others, and the Sun is but one star in our galaxy; individual galaxies can contain hundreds of billions of—if not a trillion or more—stars, many of which are considerably more massive than our Sun is. Our solar system is an unimaginably tiny—completely insignificant—part of the Milky Way, which, itself, is just as infinitesimal, and insignificant, a part of the universe as a whole. Our planet is minor, and the star it orbits is ordinary.
2. The insignificance of our galaxy, our solar system and our planet in the scope of the larger universe is mirrored by the triviality of human beings in the context of Earth's ever-branching Tree of Life. As noted, Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, with life's initial emergence on this planet having been pegged at approximately 3.8 billion years ago. However, mammals have only walked the planet for 220 million years; the genus Homo made its first appearance only 2.35 million years ago; and hominids bearing close resemblance to humans of today have only been around 200,000 years or so. This, of course, means that hominids bearing resemblance to modern humans have treaded the Earth for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history.
3. In light of facts one and two, we can say with sufficient certitude that humankind, as a whole, is completely and comprehensively insignificant in the context of the cosmos. Our galaxy is of no importance in the broader universe; our solar system is of no importance in our broader galaxy; Earth is but a minor planet in its larger solar system; and humankind—in the context of the broader Tree of Life that has been growing for 3.8 billion years—has just emerged on the scene this instant. Human beings happen to have evolved: Evolutionary forces were not “building toward” us; nor was our evolution a goal, pinnacle or conclusion; nor does our momentary perch atop the animal kingdom confer onto us unique specialness, value or intrinsic worth.
4. Given the comprehensive insignificance—of the Milky Way, of our solar system, of our planet and of humankind as part of the Tree of Life—discussed above, we can go one step further. If the Milky Way galaxy were to disappear tomorrow—sucked into a black hole the size of which no astronomer has yet imagined—the universe would look, well, pretty much exactly as it does now; the Milky Way's presence would not be missed. If the Sun experienced violent star death tomorrow, and its death throes obliterated the entirety of our solar system—including, of course, the Earth—the Milky Way would look more or less identical to the way it looks today; the destruction of our solar system would go unnoticed in our galaxy. And if human beings, in an inexplicable mass extinction, all dropped dead tomorrow, Earth, life and evolution would continue on in our absence. Earth is critical to us because it is our home; we, however, are far from critical to Earth.
5. Humanity is to the universe as a single grain of sand on a beach is to Earth; the entire species could go extinct in a nuclear blast tomorrow, and the universe would not take the slightest notice, or miss our kind. If humanity as a whole is of no cosmic significance, then it follows that no individual human possesses cosmic significance, either. And if no individual human possesses cosmic significance, then it certainly follows that no human action—whether it be deemed virtuous or wicked by those who would judge it—is ultimately significant, either. The Milky Way's formation was not a significant moment in the universe's development; the Sun's birth was not a moment of importance in the Milky Way's history; humankind is not a significant branch on the Darwinian Tree of Life. Importance we assign to ourselves and to our actions is subjective and comes from ourselves, not from objectively grounded cosmic significance that actually exists as a matter of fact.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Against Self-Importance [Updated 12/18]
Humankind's pronounced predisposition to self-importance, bordering on haughty arrogance, leaves me with some combination of bafflement at our childlike taste for palatable delusion, frustration with our seeming inability to reason beyond it and weary resignation to our current solipsistic (in the sense of being characterized by extreme egocentrism) stance. Certainly, almost every successive discovery that is won through diligent scientific effort bespeaks the wondrousness of the world as we know it and the humbling majesty of the small planet on which we live. One need only consult the exciting developments emerging in disciplines ranging from biology to cosmology, chemistry to astrophysics, and paleontology to geophysics. However, our compounding and expanding scientific understanding only serves to testify to a universe far larger and grander than we will ever experience, and one in which we play such an infinitesimal role that we charitably could be said to have essentially no significance.
As a regular reader of my writing might expect, I believe the institution of religion is the principal cause of the delusive idea that humans, either as individuals or as a species, hold some special significance. And, for clarity, I speak not only of significance exceeding that of other animals but, in fact, of any cosmic-scale significance whatsoever. From extremely early childhood, those of us raised with religious inculcation are told that we are children of god, created in his glorious image, and cared for and loved by him. Moreover, we are told that god is deeply concerned with our thoughts and actions, down to the trivial and the mundane, and that he is comprehensively aware of what we, as individuals, do. If the intellectual cancer of creationism is grafted onto, or simply replaces, our scientific education, we might well be led to believe that the universe, our planet in it and we on that planet were literally and supernaturally created, making us, by extension, godly objects.
All of this is to say that, in youth, our intellectual development is so minimal that we have no defense against attractive delusion that is presented as fact by those whom we trust. If, in childhood, the fangs of religious indoctrination are plunged deeply into our bodies, pumping their unique brand of sweet-smelling toxin, we are likely to grow to be adults whose brains are hopelessly addled by nonsense. Recognizing religion as the robust, well-adapted phenomenon that it is, one cannot help but to approach it in Darwinian fashion in an attempt to understand why it is so pervasive. That religion, in general, promises an afterlife following earthly death certainly contributes to its appeal, inasmuch as the prospect of nonexistence seems to frighten and disturb most of us. In religion, many people also find not only solace and comfort but meaning and inspiration, too. For these people, god and religion, to some extent, provide life with an overarching purpose, without which, presumably, they would feel adrift. Religion also feeds into our innate egocentrism, inasmuch as many of us like to feel loved (especially by a supreme being!) and to believe that our actions, for better or worse, reverberate beyond our minuscule little sphere.
Although religion might well be the vehicle through which human self-importance most frequently reveals itself, and I certainly would contend that it exacerbates and magnifies whatever predisposition toward egocentrism people might have, it definitely is not the only way in which this mental distortion becomes manifest. And I would be dishonest to say that I, myself, do not fall victim frequently to variants of this selfsame delusion. I suffer from an extreme susceptibility to the rose-colored visions of pure, undying romance that have permeated cinema for decades and that are so frequently echoed in sappy love songs, causing me to be sucked into ideas such as "soul mates." By that, I mean two people who, among the nearly 7 billion who populate this planet, are romantically meant for each other to the exclusion of all other possible couplings. The problem with such ideas is the unanswered, and seemingly unanswerable, question: "Meant for each other" by whom? And even granting the possibility that there were an individual, among the billions of people on our planet, for whom you were personally meant, it seems rather silly to think that you would find that individual.
And let us not neglect to mention those old canards that it is sometimes just a person's "time to go" or that, if something happens, "it was meant to." One sometimes hears things similar to the former when a tragedy befalls somebody, such as, for instance, when a plane crash kills a happy young couple. Perhaps more to the point, somebody might say it was a young daredevil's "time to go" if he were to plunge to his death while mountain climbing. The apparent implication of this is that, if the daredevil were to have stayed home and watched television that day, some other accident would have offed him. Turning to the latter phrase, "it was meant to happen," I view it largely as a mental illusion one conjures to absolve oneself of blame and emancipate oneself from regret over an unwelcome development in one's life. That is, it involves believing that something was preordained, thereby allowing one to embrace the comforting notion that, no matter what choices had been made, the outcome would have been the same. The problems here are identical to the one previously identified: If one has a "time to go," by whom is it determined? If something "was meant to happen," to whom can we credit the planning?
These generally secular forms of self-importance might seem meaningfully different from those characterizing religious practice. For instance, freethinkers recognize that prayer is a useless exercise that is undertaken by those who, in a fit of childish delusion, believe they can effect change in the real world by falling to their knees and murmuring to themselves, all the while thinking they are communicating with the creator of the universe. However, whether secular or religious, all variants tie together inasmuch as they are part of a fallacious-idea web wherein humans are significant, subjects of a plan, qualitatively different from other life forms and imbued with a nebulous "special something." It seems that there is insufficiently abundant comfort, purpose, meaning, ego stroking and reassurance in the harsh light of science, leading many to crawl back to the cool, dark territory of unreason, like bugs beneath a stone.
From what, exactly, does the majority seek comfort? I argue that the answer is our proper place in a vast universe. The age of the universe--of which our solar system (as well as our entire galaxy) is the tiniest sliver--is 13.75 billion years, with an uncertainty of 0.17 billion years. The age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years, with an uncertainty of one percent. Modern forms of Homo sapiens first emerged on the scene about 195,000 years ago. Looking at these dates in context, we can say that humanlike creatures have been around less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history. With a clearheaded comprehension of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, we understand that human beings happen to have evolved. We certainly were not bound to evolve, nor is evolution an efficacious stepladder that was designed to reach the heights of humankind, nor is humankind the "final product" toward which everything has been building. Furthermore, Darwinian evolution knows of only one Tree of Life, and we exist as part of, rather than standing apart from, that multiply branched tree.
Finally, we also know that that which lives eventually will die and, despite a great deal of wishful thinking of both an explicitly religious and vaguely spiritual nature, there is literally no persuasive evidence to support the contention of an afterlife. The evidence, it turns out, is to the contrary. In God: The Failed Hypothesis--How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, Victor Stenger writes, "We have seen that neurological and medical evidence strongly indicates that our memories, emotions, thoughts and, indeed, our very personalities reside in the physical particles of the brain or, more precisely, in the ways those particles interact. So this would seem to say that when our brains die, we die." Perhaps it is upsetting to accept, but the simple fact remains that each of us will die. There will come a day, whether distant or close at hand, when each of us will be but a cold, lifeless body, lying in a morgue or funeral parlor, or on a medical examiner's slab. Makeup and powder will be applied to our faces, our best clothes will be draped on our corpses and we will be injected with chemicals to forestall the process through which each of us will decompose...until we become nothing at all.
If one adheres to Christian dogma, quite a bit of the preceding discussion might be questioned or flatly denied. I recognize that, if one is a bible-believing Christian, one is fully entitled, if not outright obligated, to believe in the intrinsic specialness of humankind and our species' cosmic, enduring importance. That one's false superstition compels such beliefs, though, does not prevent me from pointing out that Christianity amplifies, distorts and exacerbates delusive self-importance, a condition that is well recognized if only partially understood. I see no particular reason to relitigate all the issues that I, and many others, have already discussed, such as the ludicrousness of prayer, the many frailties of Christianity and the profound weakness of the design hypothesis, but I do think it is worthwhile to reiterate the principal reason why I am not, and intellectually cannot be, a Christian. Quite simply, to subscribe to Christianity, one must believe that a god who, in barbarous and ignorant times, was eminently clear, present and active suddenly, upon the emergence of a scientific understanding of the natural order, became a silent, inert sluggard whose presence can only be discerned in the most obscure, skepticism-baiting ways. The Israelites had precious little need for abstruse philosophical prestidigitation like the Transcendental Argument.
Whether it is the seemingly endless succession of people predicting the end of the world in their puny, insignificant lifetimes, the thoroughly irrational masses who are convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime before they, themselves, would die off, or the people who foolishly pretend that Earth holds a place of significance in an observable universe that is estimated to measure 93 billion light-years in diameter, humans habitually betray a breathtaking ego that is completely unwarranted by the evidence. If one wishes to think and, as a result, behave in accordance with truth (as best as it has been currently ascertained), one should recognize that, qualitatively, we are no different from any other evolved creature, our current perch atop the animal kingdom notwithstanding. And if one requires meaning of some kind to persist in life, one must invent such meaning for oneself.
Because just as surely as there is no objective, prescriptive moral code weaved into the fabric of the cosmos, nor any god above, below or anywhere else to love, supervise, create or punish, there is no purpose to life, to humans, or to you or to me apart from whichever one we invent. And as much as we might like to believe we are a grand, towering thing of a sort that only a deity could assemble, the truth is contrary: We are the accidental product, among millions and millions of others, of a Darwinian trial-and-error process. Most importantly, the universe did not notice our arrival and does not notice our persistence; it will not notice our eventual, inevitable extinction and shall not remember our follies.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
My Case Against God Revisit: Imagine There's No Evolution...
What if the entire scientific community is wrong? What if Darwinian evolution by natural selection, convincing though it has been since the time of Charles Darwin, has not occurred? Indeed, what if, far from modern notions of common descent, all species were specially created—all at once—by a supernatural Creator who personally designed every creature’s form? This Creator would be responsible for Homo sapiens sapiens, of course, but also for Drosophila melanogaster, Apatosaurus excelsus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus and Dendroaspis polylepis, along with every other species of living thing that has ever populated the Earth. Going down this particular rabbit hole is rather difficult; after all, Darwinian evolution by natural selection is scientific fact, a truth as well attested and irrefragable as the germ theory of disease or the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Nevertheless, if we take the enormous leap of faith required to reject Darwinian evolution, we can examine the world as we find it and, I shall argue, discern important qualities of the Creator. These qualities should offer no comfort to the religious.
And so, down the rabbit hole we go, looking at Earth not as an extremely ancient planet whose antiquity is confirmed by several converging lines of evidence but, rather, as a baby planet whose considerable biodiversity can be entirely explained within a several-thousand-year history. Yes, now we must look at Earth as the backyard garden of the Creator. But what kind of a Creator? Looking at the available evidence, I shall explain why we can conclude such a Creator is (1) a devious being, who wishes to trick humans into believing Earth is extremely ancient and the species have an evolutionary history, (2) remarkably odd, because the distribution of species on Earth, if consciously arranged, speaks to an extraordinarily queer mind, (3) peerlessly wasteful, given the presence of nonfunctional pseudogenes, and (4) idiotic, as evidenced by the utterly incompetent design that can be found throughout the creation, in humans as well as other species.
The majority of my material, as well as my initial inspiration, comes from The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins, and Why Evolution is True, by Jerry A. Coyne. When I use either author’s exact words, I shall quote him directly; if, however, I simply summarize a discussion in either text, I might not make a specific citation. Thus, let it be clear that Dawkins and Coyne’s fertile minds contributed invaluably to the whole of this piece.
First, then, surveying the evidence at our disposal, we can be certain that the Creator is devious, deliberately setting out to create a false impression of Earth’s antiquity and evolution’s occurrence. The first way in which this characteristic manifests itself is in the theory of plate tectonics, a geological theory that states the lithosphere of the Earth is divided into a small number of plates that float on and travel independently over the mantle. We now understand that the continents have not always existed as we currently know them. For example, Gondwana was an ancient supercontinent encompassing our present South America, Africa,
Our principal interest is when Africa and South America began breaking apart, which, according to current scientific thinking, was about 140 million years ago. The two continents are now separated by some 3000 miles, with the speed of separation being a couple of inches per year. If, however, Earth is actually quite young—merely several thousand years old—and the product of a Creator, such a snail-like speed would not be nearly enough to separate the continents to their current distance. Indeed, if, as some have proposed, Gondwana broke up during the Noachian flood, the continents would positively have had to hurtle away from each other. Because the speed of separation can be measured, and it is remarkably slow, we can be confident that any Creator who separated the continents at a very quick speed sometime in the last few thousand years is trying to deceive us into believing Earth is ancient. The Creator is deceptive.
The Creator’s trickster tendencies are also apparent in our radioactive clocks. Radioactive isotopes in igneous rocks (rocks formed by magma cooling down and becoming solid) are used for dating purposes, because the isotopes decay at a constant rate. It is important to note that there are several radioactive isotopes scientists use, and they often co-exist within the same rocks. The decay rate used is typically the half-life, that being how long it takes for half of the unstable isotope present to decay to something stable (to go from 100 to 50, 50 to 25 and so forth). Carbon-14 decays to Nitrogen-14; its half-life is 5730 years. Uranium-238 decays to Lead-206; its half-life is 4.5 billion years. Uranium-235 decays to Lead-207; its half-life is 704 million years. Other unstable isotopes include Potassium-40, Thorium-232, Rubidium-87 and Samarium-147. Importantly, as Jerry Coyne writes, “Several radioisotopes usually occur together, so the dates can be cross-checked, and the ages invariably agree.”
This is important because, with our half-life figures calibrated, we can use radioactive clocks to converge on an approximation of Earth’s age. In fact, scientists have done just that. Richard Dawkins writes, “The currently agreed age of 4.6 billion years is the estimate upon which several different clocks converge.” This fact surely means the Creator—who created Earth merely several thousand years ago—is devious beyond compare. Not only did he change the half-life figures of every radioactive isotope that we use for historical dating, but he also changed them in such a way that each one converges on the same ancient age—4.6 billion years—for Earth! To be sure, for every clock to converge on, say, 6000 years, every half-life would have to be tweaked differently.
Dawkins makes this point: “Bear in mind the huge differences in timescales of the different clocks, and think of the amount of contrived and complicated fiddling with the laws of physics that would be needed in order to make all the clocks agree with each other, across the orders of magnitude, that the Earth is 6000 years old and not 4.6 billion!” To do such fiddling, thus making every radioactive isotope that we use all agree that Earth is 4.6 billion years old, attests to a Creator who deliberately attempts to trick humans undertaking scientific study. The Creator is devious.
This deviousness extends to evolution, which, clearly, the Creator wants scientists to accept; that is the only explanation for the fossil record. When we talk about “dating fossils,” what we nearly always mean is dating the rocks around which the fossils are found. This is where the geologic strata become important. The geologic strata (singular is “stratum”) are layers of rock, one on top of the other, with the oldest rocks the deepest down and the youngest rocks the highest up. The scientific community refers to this layering as the geologic column, and it is extremely well evidenced. The salient point for our purposes here is that, when dating fossils (actually, the rocks around which fossils are found), they appear in a strict evolutionary order. When questioned by a creationist as to what observation could possibly disprove Darwinian evolution, the late J. B. S. Haldane famously answered, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian!” On the evolutionary view, the Precambrian spans from Earth’s formation about 4.6 billion years ago to approximately 542 million years ago; rabbits are mammals, and the first mammals do not come onto the scene until about 250 million years ago. As Coyne writes, “Needless to say, no Precambrian rabbits, or any other anachronistic fossils, have ever been found.”
The complete absence of anachronistic fossils lends considerable credence to the evolutionary view. To reconcile it with a Creator, one absolutely must assume a devious trickster. Dawkins writes, “It is a fact that literally nothing that you could remotely call a mammal has ever been found in Devonian rock or in any older stratum. They are not just statistically rarer in Devonian than in later rocks. They literally never occur in rocks older than a certain date.” He continues, “There are literally no trilobites above Permian strata, literally no dinosaurs (except birds) above Cretaceous strata.” At the considerable risk of deceased equine flogging, Dawkins sums it up: “All the fossils that we have, and there are very very many indeed, occur, without a single authenticated exception, in the right temporal sequence.” How many dinosaur fossils have we found in the same rocks as Australopithecine fossils? Zero. How many zebra fossils have we found in the same rocks as trilobite fossils? Zero. How many anachronistic fossils have been authenticated? Zero. The only explanation is that the deceptive Creator is fudging the fossils to make Darwinian evolution an inescapable conclusion.
On creationism, the distribution of species on Earth makes very little sense, attesting to a Creator with an extremely odd mind, bordering on completely inscrutable. Nowhere is this sheer oddness more evident than in island biogeography. With respect to islands, there is an important distinction that is material to our discussion: the difference between continental islands and oceanic islands. Continental islands are those that once were connected to a continent but later became separated. An example would be
On a creationist theory positing a Creator who is not a weirdo, there is little reason to suppose there would be much difference vis-à-vis biogeography between continental and oceanic islands. However, the differences are dramatic, which has led many scientists to accept evolution and, in our case, for us to conclude the Creator is simply an odd duck. Coyne writes, “Oceanic islands are missing many types of native species that we see on both continents and continental islands. Take
It takes only a moment of thought to recognize that plants, birds, and insects and other arthropods “can colonize an oceanic island through long-distance dispersal.” By contrast, land mammals, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fish would have extreme difficulty colonizing an oceanic island unless, for example, some reptiles made it onto a log that happened to “raft” onto one. The topic of island biogeography is rich, and a great deal more could be said, but it exceeds the scope of this paper. Suffice it to note that, on creationism, with anything but an extraordinarily queer Creator, we would not expect such differential biodiversity on continental versus oceanic islands.
The peculiarity with which the species are dispersed cannot be overstated, and Dawkins asks the questions as well as anyone does. He writes, “Why would all those marsupials—ranging from tiny pouched mice through koalas and bilbys to giant kangaroos and Diprotodonts—why would all those marsupials, but no placentals at all, have migrated en masse from Mount Ararat to Australia? Which route did they take? And why did not a single member of their straggling caravan pause on the way, and settle—in India, perhaps, or China, or some haven along the Great Silk Road? Why did the entire order Edentata (all twenty species of armadillo, including the extinct giant armadillo, all six species of sloth, including extinct giant sloths, and all four species of anteater) troop off unerringly for South America, leaving not a rack behind, leaving no hide nor hair nor armour plate of settlers somewhere along the way? Why were they joined by the entire infraorder of caviomorph rodents, including guinea pigs, agoutis, pacas, maras, capybaras, chinchillas and lots of others, a large group of characteristically South American rodents found nowhere else?” Dawkins notes that lemurs are endemic to
The next two Creator characteristics can be discerned more briefly, and I shall do so to keep the information easily digestible. The third characteristic of a Creator is that he is peerlessly wasteful, and this fact is never more clear than in examining the pseudogene, which is defined as a sequence of DNA that is very similar to a normal gene but that has been altered slightly so that it is not expressed; by definition, they are incapable of producing a protein product. Coyne writes, “Virtually every species harbors dead genes, many of them still active in its relatives. This implies that those genes were also active in a common ancestor, and were killed off in some descendants but not in others. Out of about thirty thousand genes, for example, we humans carry more than two thousand pseudogenes. Our genome—and that of other species—are truly well populated graveyards of dead genes.” For what possible reason would the Creator litter the genome with pseudogenes—a gene that, by definition, does entirely nothing? Because, as I say, the Creator must be prodigal in the extreme. Perhaps shameless wastefulness is a virtue.
Finally, the evidence clearly shows that the Creator, far from being a designer of formidable intelligence, is rather idiotic. In so declaring, I am not referencing the mindless wastefulness of pseudogenes; rather, I refer to the shoddy engineering and craftsmanship of the species themselves. A classic example—indeed, it has been well mined by Darwinians—is the recurrent laryngeal nerve of mammals. Coyne writes, “Running from the brain to the larynx, this nerve helps us speak and swallow. The curious thing is that it is much longer than it needs to be. Rather than taking a direct route from the brain to the larynx, a distance of about a foot in humans, the nerve runs down into our chest, loops around the aorta and a ligament derived from an artery, and then travels back up (‘recurs’) to connect to the larynx. It winds up being three feet long. In giraffes the nerve takes a similar path, but one that runs all the way down that long neck and back up again: a distance fifteen feet longer than the direct route!” Of course, on an evolutionary view, this presents some evidence of common mammalian descent; on our creationist view, it simply reveals a Creator whose stupidity is reliable.
The examples I could mine in the vein of the Creator’s idiocy would fill a book—perhaps several. The vas deferens takes a similar nonsensical detour in its route from testis to penis. In his inimitable way, Dawkins writes, “It takes a ridiculous detour around the ureter, the pipe that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder. If this were designed, nobody could seriously deny that the designer had made a bad error.” Yet another example of idiocy comes in the form of goose bumps. In species with a full coat of hair, piloerection makes sense. If the creature is cold, it results in the erect hairs trapping air to create a layer of insulation. Additionally, if the creature is threatened, “puffing up” its body hair can create the impression that the animal is larger. In short, then, piloerection, though completely sensible for hair-covered animals, is utterly senseless in humans—the naked ape. It is as though the Creator, in a fit of idiocy, attached a steering wheel to a refrigerator. Thus, we can be assured that the Creator, responsible for humans and bats, dandelions and plesiosaurs, is formidably moronic.
Is this really what creationists seek? Do they really want a Creator who is devious, weird, wasteful and idiotic? We must go where the evidence takes us; we must look at the simple facts and draw our conclusions directly from them—we must never let the conclusion dictate the facts we choose to recognize. The facts that we find as we examine and analyze the natural order all lead directly to Darwinian evolution by natural selection. To make any creationism hypothesis work, we must (a) endow the Creator with numerous negative attributes that fundamentally contradict the holy books from which creationists lift their science and (b) flagrantly violate the principle of parsimony. Is the simplest, most parsimonious explanation for the recurrent laryngeal nerve of mammals really that the Creator’s idiocy was in full force when designing, for example, humans and giraffes? What about the geologic strata and the complete absence of anachronistic fossils? What about the radioactive clocks? Did the Creator really tinker with all the half-life values, making them all converge on a fictitious ancient age for Earth?
Some creationist worries are legitimate. On evolution, humans indeed are just another species of animal. Knowing our place in the single tree of life robs us of our specialness, to some considerable extent. It also undermines objective morality. A polar bear might eat its own young. Do concepts of “moral” or “immoral” apply to that situation? If not, why would such concepts apply to humans, who are a twig on the tree of life just as much as polar bears are? Natural selection might have favored “moral instincts,” but such inclinations are hardly objective or prescriptive in any conventional sense. Evolution provides no morality-oriented “ought to” or “ought not to” as far as behavior.
More than anything else, evolution puts us in our place. We are just another species of animal. One day we shall go extinct. Our universe shall not miss us—at least, not any more than it misses trilobites or the giant armadillo. The significance we attach to…well, everything…is overdone when one looks from a grand, cosmic perspective.
There is no devious, weird, wasteful and idiotic Creator. There is no Creator of any variety. There is only nature, of which we are a sliver. We can be happy—and, really, this is enough—that evolution has granted us brains that are sufficiently large and complex to understand from where we came, along with constitutions strong enough to accept, in the last analysis, our species’—indeed, our world’s—final destination.