I received a request recently to post this so others could read it. The following conversation took place on my facebook page on Ask An Atheist Day, April 19, 2012. I have removed comments that were not related to the conversation that follows, but otherwise have left everything as it was, typos and lack of paragraphs included.
David Zartman: hmm, for me the key question for any belief system is "why do you believe what you believe?" -always tends to generate relevant, personal and interesting answers. :)
Me: For me it came down to causality. Every effect has a cause, and they are traceable, physical things. Even thoughts are traceable, physical things, even if we don't yet know enough about them to trace them as easily as we track momentum in collisions. Since everything has such a cause, and every cause has such a cause, all the way back to the big bang... I see no room for god. I see no place where a god would have stepped in, no place where that chain of causality was altered. That was the first thing, anyway. There are plenty of other reasons now, but that was what first made me stop believng.
David: thank you diana, that is a very good answer. I myself used similar logic, but ended up elsewhere. Examples - I cannot convince myself of the veracity of evolution as an explanation for the formation of species - it can cause adaptation, but the second law of thermodynamics would indicate evolution should go from complex to simple rather than the other way around. As for causality, my reasoning was thus - every cause must have its own cause all the way back to the beginning, which must itself be uncaused. How can something be uncaused and yet cause something else to happen? this would indicate a basic nature outside of time - how would that be possible? The only way I could explain it is using special relativity - ie something moving fast enough will reduce its mass to zero and travel at the speed of light, effectively being everywhere at once and independent of time. There is thus a dependence between mass and time, thus being able to exist without mass which would indicate onmipresence...etc this fits the description of an infinite God. Thus for me the difficulty is the question: what caused the Big Bang? in addition, random processes can only generate random results by definition - yet we see order in the universe. Natural selection is cited as the cause of this order, yet is not only unverified in modern science, but modern life has many areas where the strong are required to protect the weak at cost to themselves, which directly contradicts it. I think you would agree that it is good for a soldier to save a defenseless orphan - this is consistent with the Christian definition of sacrificial love, how is it consistent with an atheistic viewpoint? (sorry to throw tough questions at you - these are my struggles with atheism - thank you for being willing to stand up for your faith, uh, non-faith? uh, belief system, that fits. It's not an easy thing to do, but it is very valuable to know what you believe such that you can defend it - otherwise why believe it? I thus applaud your courage - bravo!)
Me: Here's hoping I don't get too many more replies while I'm typing this!
Rather than typing it all out here, I'm just going to link to this: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-misconceptions.html ... because it answers the second law objection and has a link to cited sources of observed speciation. I will state simply that life is not a closed system; it has energy being put into it from outside sources, and therefore it is not subject to the second law.
I watched an interesting documentary with Stephen Hawking where he brought up the fact that the universe, at the moment of the big bang, would have been a quantum-sized particle, and it is known that quantum mechanics allows such particles to pop in and out of existence seemingly at random, so it is not inconceivable that the universe did so. When we understand what happens with the quantum particles, perhaps we will have a better understanding of whether that is what happened. In any case, I do not believe any god is necessary to have caused it, and I am perfectly comfortable saying simply that I do not have an answer.
As for random processes creating random results, and observed order in the universe... that's an interesting one, and I'm not going to claim that my answer here is based on science. For one, only at the quantum level is there what seems to be true randomness. The macro-universe, no matter how chaotic it seems, is governed by the laws of physics. Every effect, as I said before, has a cause. If we had enough data, and knew all the factors, we could calculate all of the seeming randomness. It is ordered, it is just extremely complex. Even at the quantum level, those things that we observe as statistical because they seem to be random may have an underlying order. What seemingly random things make you doubt that order could exist? The more we learn about the universe, the more we are able to describe it mathematically, forging order out of seeming chaos.
Then you get into the troublesome questions of morality. That will take longer to address, but I will attempt to do so.
First of all, I do not believe that behaving morally because you either fear hell or hope for heaven is itself moral. If you have two children, one of which shares his toys and behaves well without being told, and another who does so only when you give him candy, which is the better child? What of a third who only behaves well because he will get a spanking at home if he does not? But that is only a problem with certain religions, not with the concept of god, so I will add more.
Altruism and "moral" behavior are observed in many places in the animal kingdom. Symbiotic relationships abound, and in species where animals live in communities, they help each other for various observable reasons. Reputation is one; if an animal is known to the community to be generous, others will share with it when it is in need. Then there's potlach altruism, which I find fascinating--giving ostentatiously to prove that one is prosperous. There's also the direct 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' sort, and the mother sacrificing herself for her offspring sort-- which ensures the continuation of the genes, of course. That's the source of it all, really. A successful species will continue, and an individual member of a successful species is better off. Animals do it by instinct; only humans feel the need to rationalize it.
But let's talk about humans for a moment. Why should atheists behave morally? Because this is the only life we have, the only world we have. We don't have an eternity of bliss waiting for us; if we want 'heaven' we have to create it here. So I will happily give to charity, and volunteer to clean up my community, and do what I can to make the world a better place. It's the only one I've got, after all. And that soldier saving that orphan? For one thing, it is consistent with the instinctual drive to ensure the survival of the species. For another, why would it not be considered moral? The atheist viewpoint is simply that there is no reason to believe in god; other than that, they run the gamut of beliefs in other areas. Some are die-hard, Ayn-Rand reading objectivists. Others are tree-hugging hippies. But there is no reason that morality has to be inconsistent with a lack of a belief in god.
David: interesting - not my perspective obviously, but decently well-answered none-the-less. It still seems though that natural selection is not observed. Let me approach the difficulty from another viewpoint. Say that evolution is the source, gradual change would leave species in vulnerable states - ie a fish with half a leg or even one leg is not going to be a good mutation, thus the idea of punctuated equilibrium (only breaking physics periodically rather than gradually in my mind). Simultaneous spontaneous evolution of both sexes is then improbable, but lets continue anyway. At that point there is only the micro scale, thus the individual must act selfishly to defend himself above all else. His society is not like him in any way and there can be no altruism or evolution is symied. Later on though, for the new species to survive, altruism must be present. Eg deer must be hunted as too many deer will eat the food supply up too quickly over winter and all will die. Thus ignoring morality as morality and speaking only functionally, how does this change occur and at what point? It would seem that the individual must be totally self-centered in the beginning of the species, yet somehow by a bit later totally flip to altruism. I gues the other side of the argument would be, where does morality come from? We cannot be simultaneously self-centered and species centered, yet in the evolutionary picture of time it seems both are needed.
I guess a bit more on the second law of thermodynamics too, explain my issue with their explanation. Thermodynamics is in general actually the rules for statistical mechanics, or the laws governing random systems. The argument in my mind is thus that if evolution is fully random, it must follow the second law of thermo, meaning it must go from a complex design and entropically break down into simpler components - things break, they don't improve themselves with time. If thermo doesn't apply, then evolution itself must not be a random process, which indicates design and thus a designer. Thus I find myself in a catch-22 of if evolution is random, the second law says that it should have started complex, which needs God, or if it isn't random, it contradicts itself and the source of non-randomness must also be God as nothing else existed back then. I guess let me put it this way - if quantum mechanics caused the big bang, what caused quantum mechanics? - or in my mind, who established the laws of physics? They require order out of chaos, thus are not random, thus require a non-random source, which I can't explain any other way. Thank you for being open for discussion, you have been giving good and thoughtful replies and I really appreciate that.
I guess I also have issues with the proposed age of the universe. Current metrics for the 13.5 billion years proposed are not verified -eg an alternate explaination for redshift was given by Jaio Magueijo as a decreasing speed of light - which does have some experimental data backing it up. There is also the comparative distances to the moon and the sun. For life to exist, the earth, sun and moon have to be in precisely their current locations, with very little wiggle room. Closer to the sun is burning up, farther away freezing, closer moon is drowning tides twice a day, farther moon is stagnant oceans. The scary thing is that the earth is moving farther away from the sun, and the moon is moving farther away from the earth. A few thousand years is not a problem, but even a few million years and the dinosaurs are being drowned twice a day, a bit more and the earth starts being inside the radius of the sun...which is not healthy. (the sun is also burning up, thus its radius was bigger) - thus you see my issue in trying to believe anything but a young earth creation. To me, that is the only thing that science allows.
Jim: As for the sun-moon-earth orbit thingy... If the universe is 13.x billion years old, it does not mean the sun and earth are. Other items in your paragraph imply a lack of clarity in celestial mechanics. I'm looking forward to Diane's response. (And - Diane - you may have noticed I'm playing devil's advocate again, for the other side this time. Still get a chuckle out of using that term in an atheist-centric discussion.)
David: as a physicist, I find their argument dissatisfying. Their argument is basically that we see order coming out of disorder through many mechanisms in nature, so it must be possible without life - I still raise the argument that it takes a non-random process to create a non-random result, thus their whole argument indicates design inherent in all of nature, thus all of nature must have been designed and thus created. It also says that life doesn't have to obey the second law. Again I raise the issue that that indicates life is not random. Maybe I am misunderstanding things, but it seems to me a basic tenant of atheism is that everything must have come about through fully random processes. Arguing that everything came about through random processes, yet the results aren't random, therefor random processes can create non-random results - doesn't follow. They are saying that the system isn't closed therefore the second law doesn't apply - I cite conservation of energy and claim the universe and a closed system, therefore the second law should apply to everything in it. They say its wrong, but I don't get their grounding - if entropy is a measure of unusable energy and it must increase, isn't usable energy some form of order and unusable energy some form of disorder? they also misconstrue macro and micro evolution. Yes adaptation happens, but their argument for gradual change even other evolutionists have issue with. There are clear delineations between species that have yet to be filled in despite direct searches towards that end. Additionally, something half-mutated would actually be weaker and thus natural selection would prevent the gradual evolution. I believe fish are supposed to have developed legs and crawled onto land - but fish with extra stubbs are going to be slower and have trouble maneuvering, thus unable to catch food or avoid predators - thus they would be the weak link to be destroyed first. In essense I find the argument to be that physics doesn't hold because the results necessitate that - which I take issue with. The hypothesis needs to predict the outcome, not answer via solution. And anyway, as a physicist, being told that physics doesn't apply to any aspect of reality bothers me. Physics is the laws of reality, thus if those laws don't apply, what laws do - and can you prove it? otherwise the argument is counter to the laws of nature and thus false. So again I state, by definition random 'operators' as it were give random results, if the observed results aren't random, then there must be a non-random component to their formation - and non-random components speak of order. For anything to exhibit order, it must have been acted on by some force to create that order, that force itself being non-random. All of these must then have been created by an intelligent designer as by definition randomness can only beget randomness - chaos cannot create order on its own. Whenever you see order coming from chaos, you see something designed thus nature itself must have been designed. How else could it be explained? I should stop now as I am talking in circles - but do this for me. Give me an explanation that doesn't require laws of physics to be ignored. If they are ignored, there must be a legitimate reason, not just that the theory doesn't hold if they do. Otherwise we need new laws of physics that do apply to reality as it were - thus what are they and are they consistent with the rest of reality that we observe.
So you say the sun and the earth weren't created via the big bang then? what then caused them? either way it puts severe restrictions on the timeframe allowed for evolution which is already and average probability of ~0. Also take into account the number of generations possible in all those years. If evolution were true, we have already had at least half that many generations of bacteria in the lab and haven't seen anything new evolve - this should be disturbing for macro-evolution. I thus stick with physics not being consistent with evolution, yet being consistent with the Bible. I will refrain from getting into subject areas that I cannot address as intelligently. Thank you for your input though, science is about discovering truth, and we can't get anywhere without all the cards on the table.
Me: Okay, David, I'm going to go through chronologically and address the points you raised. Hopefully it will make some sense. I will also repeat, I am not a biologist, so I may not be able to make my points about evolution clearly. I'll leave details to those who know more.
To begin with, you said that evolution would leave animals in vulnerable states-- not at all. Evolution is an extremely gradual process. Every generation has within it a certain amount of variation-- slightly larger, or have slightly longer legs, or slightly smaller leaves, that sort of thing. No population is totally homogenous. And some of those variations will be more beneficial for survival than others-- or, at least, will be present in those with a greater tendency to survive. Over time, that variation will be passed on with more success, and eventually the makeup of the population will shift so that most of them have that variation. Over an even greater length of time, greater changes can occur. But none of them will ever be one that leaves the organism LESS likely to survive. Every variation that gets passed on is one that is present in an organism with a greater tendency to survive. I am not going to address your point about punctuated equilibrium or attempt to explain how different sexes might arise; I have not studied enough to say anything about it with any confidence. Nor do I know how to answer your point about altruism. Like I said, I do not study biology. My boyfriend tells me he is going to address those points I do not feel confident about, so fear not, there will be answers.
The second law of thermodynamics... has absolutely nothing to say about life. It states that in a closed system, entropy always increases. Okay, if you want to define "order" as the ability to do work, then yes, you could say that it says that in a closed system, "order" cannot develop from "chaos." But life is not a closed system. Oganisms must gain energy, and the system is nowhere near perfect, much of that energy is lost. No problem there. An organism can continue existing because it is always adding more energy to its system. The Earth is not a closed system. It has a giant fusion reactor powering it, introducing the energy that then becomes nourishment for life. It also loses a lot of heat back out into space-- it is far from a perfect system. So, again, most of the energy in the world is converted to heat. No problem there. The only truly closed system in the universe is the universe, and at the universal level, the second law applies.
Also, evolution is not random. The variations that arise in a population might be-- or, at least, they seem so. I doubt that they are, but we do not know enough yet to predict them. Even so, the process by which variation becomes a change to a population as a whole is far from random. So even if you try to say that the second law of thermodynamics applies because it speaks of randomness, well, evolution is not random. To be honest, the only thing that I would call "random" at this point are quantum-level events, and I have my doubts about those-- at some point, we may figure out the mathematics to describe them, too, and then we will no longer think of them as random.
I do not see why there must be a designer if a process is not random. We say that the universe "obeys" physical laws, and therefore you think that someone must have written them. I say that the universe operates in a manner we have been able to describe mathematically-- people 'wrote' those laws, using them to describe what they observed. If there is any room for god, in my mind, it would be as the source of those laws... but even then, that god would only have created the universe, and then stepped away. The Deists believed in such a god. Such a god does not answer prayers or touch the universe at all, so I really don't see the point of it. In any case, I see no reason the laws need an author-- they are merely observations people have made about how the universe works.
As to your questions about the age of the universe, I am surprised to see them coming from a physicist, I'll be honest. I had not heard of the variable speed of light idea except in vague terms, but I've done a bit of reading on it this evening. For one, it seems to me like Occam's Razor would suggest that it doesn't work; it is a simpler, consistent explanation that the speed of light has always been constant. In addition to that, it seems that the rotation rates of pulsars disproved it years ago. If it were true that the speed of light had changed, then looking further "back" (i.e., further away), we should see pulsars rotating at a different rate in the past than they do today. We do not observe this; instead, they are observed at a consistent rotation rate in every place-- and, it follows, every time-- we can see.
Secondly, the "Goldilocks zone," where it is possible for life to exist, extends so far that Venus is just barely outside, and Mars is just barely inside. The distance Earth is currently at might be best suited for the kind of life that exists here, but it is not the ONLY distance at which life could occur. And yes, those distances vary... but not that much. The earth has always been in the "goldilocks zone;" that is how life managed to appear here in the first place. (Of course, the "goldilocks zone" speaks only of the orbits where liquid water is possible; life could conceivably arise outside of it. And while an Earth orbit that was different than the one we have might have given rise to a different kind of life, it most certainly COULD sutain it.)
I can find no evidence that the orbit of the Earth around the sun has changed since the formation of the solar system-- which, by the way, happened more like 5 billion years ago, not 14, which is the point Jim was trying to make. As for the orbital decay of the moon, yes, it is getting further away, and this link is far more eloquent about why that is not an argument for a young Earth far better than I can: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/moonrec.html . The sun's radius-- based on what we know of stellar evolution and what type of star the sun is-- has been increasing for most of its existence, and will continue to do so. I'm not sure where you got the idea that it would have been larger in the past.
As a student of physics, I find the fact that you do not understand these things somewhat baffling, given that it is also your field of study.
I think you ARE misunderstanding some things. There are no "basic tenets" of atheism. Atheism is not a belief system. It is merely a lack of belief in any gods. Many atheists have a lot of things in common, in terms of their beliefs about the universe, but nothing is required. Also, no, I personally would not say that I believe that the universe had to arise from fully random processes. I'm not even really sure what you mean by random, to be honest. I believe in a universe that operates in an ordered fashion, for which we have devised mathematical descriptions we call laws. So I am going to stop talking to you about the second law of thermodynamics until I understand what you mean by it. As far as I can tell, it is a mathematical description of a physical phenomenon, which has nothing to do with nebulous, human-made ideas like order.
As far as "misunderstanding" macro and micro evolution, no, there is no misunderstanding, because only people who don't believe evolution happens make that distinction. They are nonsense terms.
You say that, as a physicist, you have a problem being told that the laws of physics do not apply. You have cited nothing that in my understanding breaks the laws of physics, yet you claim to believe in a deity that could break them at will? It is my understanding of the universe as governed by physical laws that makes it impossible for me to believe in god! But I digress.
You speak again at great length of randomness, and again, I have no idea what you mean by it. I see no conflict with the laws of physics, so I am going to have trouble giving you an explanation I have not already given. As for order arising from chaos, what would you call crystalization? An unordered substance, usually liquid, solidifies, and it comes together in a neatly ordered system. Does that violate the laws of physics? No. The formation of solar systems is similar. What begins as a large cloud of matter settles, via the force of gravity, into neat, nearly spherical masses orbiting one another in neat, eliptical orbits. Does that violate the laws of physics? No. There are plenty of examples of chaotic systems becoming ordered one, all according to the laws of physics. So I do not understand why you think it cannot happen.
As far as physics being consistent with the bible, I could cite at great length things which were claimed to have happened that would have violated the laws of physics-- the sun standing still in the sky, for example, though I don't have chapter and verse handy-- but then, I imagine you believe that god can break all the laws of physics he wants, so those would not be a problem.
I think I am going to stop now, I fear I've been rambling. I hope I've been clear, at least somewhat.
David: Thank you, you have given a whole lot of good points, some of which I hadn't heard before. I don't think that I can coherently state my thoughts better at the moment, I guess to me randomness would be the opposite of predictability - if something is ordered it requires something to give it that order - which in my mind the only possible original source for which is God. Thus without God how are things given order? I know general theories of evolution started with extremely gradual mutations, yet the fossil record does not indicate this, and there isn't time for those mutations to have developed the variety of life we currently see. I know I don't have the generic physicists stance on these subjects, current educational policies have done no one good in restricting what teachers can expose students to so that they can make up their own minds. The data is the data, yet it can be interpreted in widely different ways depending on worldview. It thus seems that we disagree as I think we have both stated our views and countered efffectively. I am glad that you can defend your view effectively and intelligently. I wish to seek truth, and I have had too many personal experiences with God to discount Him - but all I can do is express that, it does no good to force the issue. Thus I thank you, congratulate you and bid you a good night - you have stood up for your beliefs well today and that is a good thing.
Further responses can be found here; it seemed silly to re-post the entirety, as it was 17 pages long. Be sure to read the comments there as well.