Sunday, March 14, 2010

on religion. Armstrong's argument from design.

A conversation with a very kind person on Herbert Armstrong's essay. The excerpt we discussed can be found here under the heading "The Watchmaker."

Well, I know you didn't explicitly ask for my opinion, but here it is anyway. It's one big false analogy. He is equating the natural formation of stars--and the planets that orbit those stars with astonishing regularity according to the laws of physics--to watchmaking. Of course, no one in their right mind would say that something like a watch has not had a designer because the watch has obviously been MACHINED. 
That is the key word when talking about design. There MUST be evidence of machining. 
Quite to the contrary, we observe stars condensing out of nebulae and creating new solar systems naturally--no intelligence required. Gravitational forces and inertia naturally create orbiting systems that have a period which is defined by their properties. But alas, even this naturally occurring clock, which is "perfect" as Mr. Armstrong would have you believe, is not. The Earth's rotation slows by a little bit every day due to tidal forces from the Moon. Although none of us will notice it in our lifetimes even to a fraction of a second, over the course of billions of years the Earth has slowed considerably. This affects the length of a day. Also, the Earth slows its speed around the Sun by an even smaller amount each year due to tiny little collisions with photons. This affects the length of a year. So you see, the universe isn't quite so "perfect" after all.

The only reasons that we say that the "celestial clock" never makes a mistake is because we DEFINE it as such. The rotation of the Earth defines what a day is. The time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun DEFINES what a year is. So even though the day gets longer as the Earth slows down, it will always be perfect by definition because it will always define the day.

Most of the arguments from design suffer similar weaknesses. I suggest you look into the incredibly strong evidence for evolution.

She replied with more questions:
But I have to ask you where did "gravity and inertia" come from? Do you think they have always existed? Don't they work perfectly? How could that perfection be there without a designer to make it perfect? You said they "naturally create orbiting systems, etc." How do they do that "naturally?" Where did this "nature" come from? Was it always there or did someone make it so? I know you are well aware that if the gravity of the earth were just a very, small, minute amount greater or lesser than it is right now on the earth, we all as humans would have lots of problem existing on this earth. Why is the pull of gravity on the earth so perfect? I believe there's a hole in your argument.

Yes, where did gravity and inertia come from? Good question. Where did anything come from at all? I could say the Big Bang, but then we ask where the Big Bang came from. The answer there is simply that we don't know. We may never know. There isn't much physical evidence for things before then.

You would say, "Well, I know. God created it!" To which I would reply, "Well, God is something too. Where did he come from?" To which you will reply, "God always existed," or "I don't know."

So now I will tell you about something called Occam's razor. Basically, it says that the best explanations are the simplest ones that still are able to account for all the evidence. So basically, it makes sense and it's simple. So which is more simple and still makes sense: To say that something innate always existed (whatever started the Big Bang perhaps), or to say that an incredibly complex, intelligent, and emotional being with phenomenal magical powers just always happened to exist? So you see, the "hole" that you've pointed out only pushes those unanswerable questions back a step and is also a much bigger "hole" in your argument. It also uses the fallacy of appeal to ignorance. Basically you said that, you don't know where things come from so that means God exists. Not true.

Now, who decides that it's "simpler" to say that the universe began with the Big Bang rather than saying that an almighty God has always existed?  Just because our puny human minds can "grasp" a Big Bang happening by itself more easily than a God existing for all Eternity?  Our human minds "crave" a beginning and an end to things.  It is VERY hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that anything has existed for eternity or has always existed.  That doesn't make it "simpler" or a more correct answer to our query.  It only makes it "small" enough for our minds to accept it.  But God says that he has things in store for us that "eye has not seen nor ear heard."  There are things that the human mind cannot understand as yet.  Just as a baby cannot understand the things of an adult.  Does a baby suffer from the fallacy of "appeal to ignorance?"  I think you know the answer.
I did not say I don't know where things come from and so that means God exists.  I said that the things on the earth and in the universe have been made with such precision, that they demand a designer or creator.  I said those things could not just "happen" and turn out to be so perfectly and (not to mention) beautifully made without a supreme builder.

OK, so just suppose for a second that the Big Bang does have to be started by something. There's nothing that says it has to be God. Maybe it was a supernatural universe creating machine that is emotionless and only creates universes. Maybe it existed back then but no longer exists now. Maybe it wasn't one all-powerful god, but a team of gods working together. Who's to say? The point is that these explanations are no better than the others. The best answer is that we don't know. We don't know anything about the laws of physics outside of a universe or what kinds of laws govern the creation of new universes. The most plausible explanation is the most simple one given what we know about the universe currently, and that tells us that we don't really need to posit a god or gods to start everything off.

Secondly, yes, you (and Mr. Armstrong) tried to make the claim that things are so absolutely perfect for us on Earth so they must be designed. The simple fact is that things are NOT perfectly designed as I tried to demonstrate. In fact, the majority of the Earth's surface is not very hospitable to human life. Our eyes are not perfectly designed. DNA replication is not perfectly designed. So many other facets of life and where we are located are far from perfect.

Now, the probability that a planet has the water content and temperature range that we have to allow for life as we know it to evolve is small, yes. Let's just say that the probability is 1 in a billion billion. That's one in 10 to the 18th power (10^18). Extremely small. Well, the number of planets in the universe is probably somewhere around 10^23, possibly more. Very large. That means that there would be about 10^5 (10,000) planets in the universe on which life could evolve. A very large number of life-friendly planets.

This is called the principle of truly large numbers. It means that even things with very small probability of occurring will occur (perhaps many many times) if given enough opportunities to occur. Just because we happen to find ourselves on one of the unlikely (and yet likely) planets doesn't mean that we were put here on purpose.

Suppose that this morning on the way to work, I saw the license plate ETF 354. There's a very very small probably that I would see that particular license plate. But suppose I come up to you and say, "How incredibly unlikely that I saw that particular license plate! Surely, that couldn't have been an accident. God must have planned for me to see it. It's soooo unlikely!"

Of course, that would be ridiculous. Equally, it is ridiculous to assume that the Earth is placed perfectly just because we happen to find ourselves here. i.e. We must not use the same data that suggested an idea to prove that idea.


  1. Jared, first of all the text om your post is screwy lol. I would take out the white background if you can. If not, a good < div style="background-color: none"> or < span style="background-color: black"> at the start of your post would probably take care of that :)

    Second, yeah I agree that the Intelligent Design thing is absolute crap. But personally I think the way that science people ridicule ID would be the rough moral equivalent of taking a jab at down syndrome babies... just because you can. Science itself is founded on processes that deliver clear, verifiable, logic-based results. Religions, particularly the Christian religion, did not have the luxury of integrating science to form a more holistic theory of the universe, considering that they were conceived 2000+ years ago.

    I don't believe that Christianity should even compete on logic based arguments because the religion wasn't made for that purpose. It's just not a level playing field. On the other hand, when it comes to conveying morality and rich spiritual and emotional depth, religions can be rich beyond reason. In these areas, science and logic are void.

    Take for example dancing. People hear the rhythms and beats of music and their body starts to naturally sway in harmony. The second the dancer becomes self conscious of what they're doing, realizing how absurd their body is reacting to an abstract collection of sounds, the dancer no longer FEELS the music and becomes rigid again. But now the question is, just because the person stopped dancing, is it reasonable to say that the music never actually existed in the first place?

  2. I wrote this in an email to a friend. The context was political, but then I remembered this post and thought I would add it to the discussion:

    You know, it boggles the mind. When confronted with things like carbon dating and fossil records, conservatives still want to believe that during Bible times, kids put saddles on dinosaurs and rode them to school and that there was a baby T-Rex in or just outside the stable with Mary & Joseph and the Baby Jesus.

    Here's the problem with making up stuff to support the stuff you made up (i.e., making up stuff to support Intelligent Design). IT'S MADE UP!

    If their interpretation were correct, not too long after the baby T-Rex showed up and started eating the sheep and smaller livestock, momma and daddy T-Rex would have made their appearance. It turns out, this prehistoric apex predator was very family oriented. So the three of them would have worked in unison, maybe daddy T-rex would have taught Jr. how to rip the head off a camel or something, to finish off the rest of the nativity scene. Then again, since the Bible says all the animals were quiet when Jesus was born, I suppose His presence could have also quieted the voracious, predatory nature of the T-Rex, but did they just hang out there all in a trance and stuff? If so, for how long, and when the trance wore off, did the bloody Christmas carnage begin at that point? Did they eat the three wise men?

    See I don't like the intelligent design version of things, because "We Three Kings" is one of my favorite Christmas carols. I don't want them to be eaten by the T-Rex family.