The Christian Poses Tough Questions to the Atheist (2 of 3)

We’re exploring ten tough questions that supposedly provide strong evidence for the Christian claim. Read part 1 of my response here.

Keep in mind that even if these questions do show holes in the atheist position (I don’t think they do), this are just the Christian side of the issue. Once we respond to this attack, I have a broadside of my own to offer.

4. Why Does There Appear to Be Evidence of Intelligence in Biology?

“Most scientists are quick to agree that biological systems often ‘appear’ to be designed. There are many examples of biological ‘machines’ that appear to be irreducibly complex, a sure sign of design. … Perhaps the most important evidence suggesting the involvement of an intelligent agent is the presence of DNA and the guiding role that this DNA plays in the formation of biological systems.”

Appearances can be deceiving. ELIZA was computer program with which users could have a typed conversation, as if with an attentive friend. Originally written in 1966, it could be assigned as a homework problem today. It convincingly mimics intelligence, though it contains none. Perhaps we’re seeing an ELIZA effect when we look at DNA, imagining intelligence where there is none.

Is the marvelous complexity we see in the cell a clue to an omniscient designer? Or is this clumsy, non-optimal Rube Goldberg machine actually evidence for evolution? Biologists are satisfied that evolution explains it. Laymen have no grounds by which to reject the scientific consensus as the best provisional explanation we have.

The claim of irreducible complexity doesn’t convince biologists either. I’ve written more on that here.

As for DNA being strong evidence for intelligence, guess again. In fact, DNA alone demolishes this Argument from Design. DNA is a sloppy record of evolution, not the perfect blueprint of an omniscient designer.

The Christian might point out that for every instance of information, we find an intelligence behind it. That may be so, but for every instance of intelligently caused information, that intelligence is natural, not supernatural.

Given the long list of things we thought were supernatural but are actually natural (disease, earthquakes, and so on), you’d think that apologists would be more cautious. But no, once science resolves a puzzle, they’ll just retreat to another unanswered question to defend their God of the Gaps.

5. How Did Human Consciousness Come Into Being?

“[As evolution proceeds, naturalists must] imagine that spatially-arranged matter somehow organized itself to produce non-spatial, immaterial mental states. Naturalism has no reasonable explanation for how this might come to pass.”

Ah, but it does: emergent properties. Consider a water molecule. It doesn’t have the properties of wetness, fluidity, or surface tension, but once you get trillions of trillions of them, then these properties emerge.

Or take the human brain. Our brains have roughly 100 billion (that’s 1011) neurons. A single neuron doesn’t think 10–11 times as fast; it doesn’t think at all. Thinking is another emergent phenomenon. (I’ve written more on that here.)

If the point is that we have plenty to learn about consciousness, that’s certainly true. Again, science’s long list of unanswered questions does nothing to support the Christian claim.

Wallace also insists on the existence of the mind as something separate from the brain, but he gives no evidence of this dualism.

Remember the story of Phineas Gage, the man who had a steel rod shot through his head during a mining accident (more here)? Or consider an Alzheimer’s patient. As the physical brain is damaged or deteriorates, the mind is also damaged. The “mind” is simply what the brain does.

If Wallace thinks that the mind (or soul) is something separate or that consciousness is not the inevitable end result of a sufficiently large brain, he needs to show evidence.

6. Where Does Free Will Come From?

Wallace imagines various philosophical problems with free will and then solves them with God as the first mover. Of course, he doesn’t explain the new puzzles that the God hypothesis introduces—where God came from or why God has always existed or what laws of nature (if any) God breaks to do his miracles. This hypothesis teaches us nothing new. God becomes a synonym for “I don’t know.”

If God is the reason that we have free will, then Wallace is saying that a godless universe would have no free will. I patiently await evidence of this claim.

I have little interest in philosophical puzzles. In the apologetics context, they seem like nothing more than smoke screens. Let me know if there’s something I’ve missed.

7. Why Are Humans So Contradictory in Nature?

Humans can be altruistic and compassionate, but we can also be hateful and murderous. “Philosophical Naturalism struggles to explain how creatures capable of genocide and cruelty are also capable of compassion and sacrificial generosity.”

What’s puzzling? Humans have a large palette of personality traits and drives. They came from evolution, and we’re stuck with them, though we can do our best to adapt to society’s norms.

These drives, both “good” ones like patience and perseverance and “bad” ones like lust or envy, can be useful. The problem arises when any are used too much.

For example, generosity is a good trait, but you need to be a bit selfish so that you don’t damage your own life by giving away too much. Anger is a bad trait, but the focus and drive that it gives can be useful occasionally when righting a wrong.

Different conditions create a wide variety of norms (the Nazi prison guard is a classic example) that encourage actions inconceivable in modern society. We don’t need to handwave about Mankind’s fall to explain the good and bad we see in human actions.

The discussion concludes with part 3.

In dark ages people are best guided by religion,
as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide;
he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see.
When daylight comes, however,
it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.
— Heinrich Heine

Photo credit: Emily Jane Morgan

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  • Y. A. Warren

    It seems to me that the Higgs Boson pretty much explains the beginning of energy manifestation as matter, and that gravitational pull and other functions of universal energy continue morphing into many manifestations of matter. I don’t care what we call it, it’s all eternal, universal energy to me. I like to discuss food and wine, but I don’t care what variation on a name you use, as long as we can understand each other. Then again, “thinking is an acquired taste” not available to all manifestations of energy.

    • David Simon

      What are you talking about?

      • Y. A. Warren

        I’m talking about the Higgs Boson, being nicknamed by scientists “The God Particle,” as the pinpoint of cosmic energy that began the whole process of the universe and all further physical manifestations of eternal, universal energy.

        • Alex Symczak

          Woah, you’re way off base. I’ve never really liked that nickname for the higgs because it leads people to conclude incorrect things like that. In reality, “god particle” was just a shortening of “goddamn particle” because an editor of a book thought it sounded better. The higgs is just another boson, and like the other ones it tranfers force. It is important, however, because its effects manifest as the phenomenon we call mass.

        • Y. A. Warren

          …and the origin of all manifestations of earthly mass is what all religions seem to attempt to explain in terms of other manifestations of mass. How am I off base?

        • Itarion

          Because most of the mass of the universe comes from energy of interactions by E=mc^2. The Higgs field and boson explains why the fundamental particles have mass, not why baryons (protons, neutrons, anti-protons, and more!) have mass. Protons and similar have mass by the energy of their constituent particles. See here:

        • RichardSRussell

          It was not the scientists who nicknamed it that; in general, they loathe the cognomen and much prefer to call it the Higgs boson.

    • MNb

      The higgs boson depends on the higgs field, which seems to be independent of time. Like I wrote before: there is no explanation for the higgs field, where it came from etc. It doesn’t look like we’ll ever get one, which means that the Grand Unified Theory might not be self-explanatory. The apologist walking this path though will have to convert to say the Flying Spaghetti Monster, one of the few gods who does play dice.
      I don’t see that happen. But I like pastafarianism. It has the best theology I have read thus far. So here is the snag for proselytizers: if they (unfortunately) manage to convert me it will not be to christianity, Ramen!

      • Itarion

        The Higgs field is comparable to the elecromagnetic field. It’s essentially one of several axioms that need to exist in order for the explanation we have of the universe to work, as far as I understand it. You’d need to have a quantum mechanic – which I am not – explain it any better.

      • RichardSRussell

        It’s the nature of explanations in general that you use simple things to explain complex things. But, once you’re down at the quantum level, it really doesn’t get any simpler — not that we can understand, anyway — so you’re stuck with just describing them instead of explaining them.

        I don’t believe we should apologize for this; saying “that’s just the way it is” is the end point of every conversation with a 6-year-old who’s learned to string a bunch of “Why?”s together. And that’s so for a very good reason: Eventually that’s all we’ve got.

        • And doesn’t “that’s just the way it is” have to be in the conversation somewhere? There are simply some properties of reality that just are. I don’t know what it would mean to have an infinite series of Why questions.

        • Greg G.

          “I don’t know what it would mean to have an infinite series of Why questions.”

          Why not?

        • Doesn’t it make sense to end any series of Why questions with, “That’s just the way it is”?

          (I’m assuming the “Why” question is always something like, “But why is that the case?”)

          Maybe it’s a failure of imagination on my part, but having an useful and informative explanation every time is counterintuitive. I’d imagine that there would be an end to every such series.

        • Greg G.

          Sorry. I posed the question as a smartass. Shoulda put a smiley on it. 8o)

        • MNb

          I agree. But I so badly want every single belief system to be incompatible with science that my skepticism obliges me to find out if there is any belief system not contradicting science in one way or another.

        • TheNuszAbides

          or a very bad reason: The 6-year-old ceased any pretense of genuine curiosity after the second (or fourth… or first) “Why?”

  • Y. A. Warren

    P.S. I LOVE this quote, “God becomes a synonym for “I don’t know.”

    • MNb


    • Gehennah

      I’m going to have to use it myself.

  • smrnda

    The problem with #7 is that it is that most religions don’t supply any better answers. If a god made humans, then why didn’t this god program them with the right morals? Even if there’s got to be some element of ‘free will’ some sort of limits on what people would think up that is bad could be put in there – people might still kill people but wouldn’t invent things like crucifixion to make killing someone into a torture.

    The notion some Protestants have of ‘total depravity’ seems to contradict 7 – if people are so intrinsically bad, why aren’t they as bad as they could be? You can take that people are morally neutral and heavily influenced by their peers and culture, but that’s just as easily explained through naturalistic processes.

  • GCBill

    Regarding #6 – Hypothetically, you can get a strictly biological account of free will. You’d need 3 things, and we don’t know if all 3 of these things are in place. But if they are, then it’s pretty safe to say that we can act freely in the libertarian sense. The three requirements are:
    1) Quantum indeterminacy, as in the Copenhagen interpretation of QM (which is the most popular, but still not a “majority view”)
    2) The brain as a chaotic system that’s sensitive enough to be susceptible to initial quantum conditions (there’s some evidence for this)
    3) Top-down constraints on the unfolding of those chaotic processes in the form of “motivations” (or whatever neurological concept ends up replacing them)
    These claims are controversial (except perhaps #3), but I hope that I have shown that there is some hope yet for “deep freedom” within naturalism.

    EDIT: How do I get rid of these redundant links? XD

    • Greg G.

      The top-down constraints would come from the structure of the neural network which would result from the perceptions and misperceptions of all the events that happen to you altering the structure that was built from natural selection acting on your ancestors, a genetic lottery, and variations during fetal development. These constraints and predispositions control what we would call will. But the free part isn’t will and the will part isn’t free.

      • MNb

        “But the free part isn’t will and the will part isn’t free.”
        That’s a semantic trick not any better than your average theology.

        • Greg G.

          It’s called chiasmus. Comparing it to average theology doesn’t invalidate the conclusion.

          If final decisions are the results of hard deterministic events then there is no free part of will. Substituting a bunch of indeterminate events into the mix doesn’t salvage the concept of free will because those final decisions are determined by indeterminate events. You’ve nominally added a free component that still forces the outcome we call will.

          The free part is free of any teleological outcomes such as your will. That means the free part isn’t will.

          Your decision cannot choose the events that led up to it nor change them. That means the will part isn’t free.

        • MNb

          “If final decisions are the results of hard deterministic events”
          Modern natural science is probabilistic.

          “The free part is …”
          That’s still a semantic trick that neglects the relevant question: will free will be a meaningful idea within the scientific theory that neuroscientists are building?
          The conclusion “the free part isn’t will etc.” is not invalid because the logic is wrong (that’s not my objection against theology either) but because it’s based on random assumptions – just like theology and all word play. One that natural scientists look down on is the idea that semantic analysis can tell us something meaningful about the reality we live in.
          In other words, the only thing you possibly show is that “free will” is the wrong word. Guess what? Natural sciences don’t give a damn. Even in classical physics words like force, mass and energy have other meanings than in daily life, not to mention the history of the word ether.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      Free will; there’s another example of a discussion that benefits from a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective.

  • MNb

    4. BobS, you’re too generous here.

    “they must also refuse to accept the existence of irreducibly complex biological machines (such as bacterial flagella).”

    Now three things will happen.

    a. From now on I think the writer stupid, no matter how often Camels with Hammers forbids me. Because this has been proven wrong since many years. Either the author is too stupid too google on “bacterial flagella evolution”. Or the author is stupid enough to think he can get away with a blatant lie. It takes only a few seconds to learn that Evolution Theory hasn’t a problem at all with bacterial flagella.

    This stupidity is confirmed by

    “These “possible” functional pathways are highly speculative, however, and are not evidentially supported.”

    Goddidid presumably is.

    OK, I’m only an evil atheist, so this will not be hard to bear. So much for proselytizing though.

    b. Christian biologists won’t take the author seriously anymore. Think of Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins.

    c. The author will achieve exactly the opposite of what he wants to achieve. Just read a couple of deconversion stories. Many of them are about fundies who learned that they had been deceived for many years. As a result they are so disappointed that they find it hard to be skeptical towards their criticism of their former belief systems.

    Good job!

    • MNb

      Btw, the commenter who wrote that further on the article of Warren goes downhill is completely right. Warren is just another apologist willing to accept any argument, no matter how much it contradicts hard facts, science and no matter how fallacious, as long as it serves his purpose: to “prove” that the personal belief system he has been fostering for many years is the right one.

    • It truly baffles me how people smart in all the other areas of life can be so gullible to cobble together a BS argument and then put it forward with a straight face and a clean conscience.

      And people wonder what gets atheists so agitated about Christianity.

      • I too wonder why Mike Behe considers the Rube Goldberg-ness of biological structures or processes evidence of design. Goldberg’s contraptions are supposed to be unlike anything anyone would consciously devise. Did Behe miss the joke?

        And as a progressive Christian, I always felt vaguely insulted that we’re meant to believe that the tail end of a bacterium should be the indicator of divine presence in our lives. Seriously?

        • I wonder how many evolution deniers who hold up Behe as a saint realize that he happily accepts common descent (p. 5 in his Darwin’s Black Box).

        • None that I’ve run into.

  • MNb

    5. “Immaterial Consciousness Emerged from Unconscious Matter”

    Prove consciousness is immaterial. Natural evidence indicates the opposite.

    Point 4. Crows have conducted a frigging war against Homo Sapiens and won. Yup, we got severely beaten by crow strategy.

    “we recognize our personal identity”

    So do crows. And a few other animals. Read the lemma Mirror Test on Wikipedia.

    “it “sprang into being” without adequate explanation.”

    God of the gaps. Human consciousness possibly is not the only form of consciousness:

    Think this over for a while:

    “A single ant or bee is not smart, but their colonies are.”

    Now replace a word and we get: “A single brain cell isn’t smart, but the brain is.”

    Of course we can assume that god gave the crows and several insect colonies intelligence and consciousness as well. It’s a bit weird then that he forgot to tell us by means of his Holy Book.

    Note: this is a subject I don’t compromise with theists at all. In my dictionary mind is thoroughly material. The immaterial component is called soul, which is a fairy tale. The idea is to deny apologists (and also atheist dualists) the opportunity to use arguments that are essentially materialistic to support dualism. They do. Only very recently one told me that it’s a stretch to call energy materialistic, which shows a serious deficiency in his understanding of physics.

    • Itarion

      “Aren’t you afraid for your soul?” No. No, I am not. I agree wholeheartedly with the total absence of anything remotely resembling an eternal, immaterial “person-ness” trapped in a fleshy exterior. I *am* the fleshy exterior, and damned proud of it. Though I might change a few things, if I really could…

    • Crows have conducted a frigging war against Homo Sapiens and won.

      The University of Washington here in Seattle has done quite a bit of research on crows. They’re great problem solvers—google “crow vending machine.”

      Student researchers now wear masks when they capture the crows because crows can recognize human faces. For years after unmasked students had caught and released crows, the crows would recognize them and call out warnings when they walked on campus.

  • MNb

    6. “I have little interest in philosophical puzzles.”
    I do. In the case of free will the answer is remarkably simple and any serious philosopher will concede it because it’s based on something accepted since long, even by theists when it suits them: science doesn’t have all the answers but certainly provides the best ones.

    Neuroscientists are very busy doing research and building a theoretical model of the human brain. We just have to wait what they show up with. Perhaps in their model there is room for free will (for instance defined in terms of probability); perhaps not. The issue is not decided yet.
    But one thing is sure. That model won’t have room for any supernatural agent.
    So again we have a case of “physics can’t explain superconductivity at relatively high temperature hence god”. Note that the prospects for neuroscientists at the moment are much better than for physicists researching superconductivity.

    7. “Philosophical Naturalism struggles ….”
    If Pjotr Kropotkin, who did research at the community lives of Siberian tribes, didn’t struggle more than 100 years ago, why should philosophical naturalism today? He clearly showed that mutual help in a community can be beneficial in terms of natural selection. Others have shown that in other circumstances aggression – including genocide – can be too. In fact the success of Homo Sapiens in competing with other species – ruining their natural habitats etc. – to a great extent is explained by his/her ability to show alternately compassion and lack of it when it’s beneficial. Even the Bible confirms this: kill the men, enslave young women and children. The power of your tribe will grow as a result, resulting in more offspring.

    • Pofarmer

      I think the real puzzle is, is there really an appearance of anything other than free will? Where is the evidence that some greater power is organizing human affairs?

      • TheNuszAbides

        a quick read of Sam Harris may begin to answer your first question. (i realize this is a tardy response and you may have different questions by now…)

        • Pofarmer

          Any specific Sam Harris? I have watched quite a bit of him on youtube but not read much. He has a great episode on “the Joe Rogan Experience.”

        • TheNuszAbides

          it’s called ‘Free Will’. 🙂
          that and ‘Lying’ (i think his two latest) are quite short compared to the others.

  • RichardSRussell

    “Where does free will come from?”

    Let us first establish that free will exists. This turns out to be a surprisingly tricky proposition, since it necessarily begins with a coherent definition of “free will”, and you’d be surprised not only at how hard this is but at how little concurrence there is on any of the many proposed definitions.

    • MNb

      “how hard this is”
      Sure, but that is less a problem than you’d might imagine. Physics works well but doesn’t have proper definitions for time and mass (two fundamental quantities).

    • GubbaBumpkin

      “I’m going to appeal to one incoherent concept (free will) to support another incoherent concept (God).”

    • smrnda

      I have the same objection; free will doesn’t seem truly well-defined. I’ve seen enough research in cognitive and social psychology that shows human decision making can be heavily impacted by things like priming, social pressure and expectations that I feel people aren’t totally in control of lots of decisions.

  • Eric Sotnak

    I don’t see how consciousness is better explained on theism. Here is a synopsis of an exchange I recently had with a theist (who is also a dualist) on this:
    Me: “How does the soul become conscious of anything?”
    Him: “Consciousness is a core property of the soul.”
    Me: “So you’re telling me that the soul can be conscious because that’s what souls do?”
    Him: “Right.”
    Me: “But that doesn’t explain anything. It’s just an assertion that souls can be conscious because they can.”
    Him: “That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
    Me: “But it is explanatorily empty. If I said that brains can be conscious because some brains state types are just what consciousness is, you wouldn’t be satisfied, would you?”
    Him: “No, because it just seems to me that consciousness is clearly not a property of the brain.”
    Me: “So what if I said that I don’t see how consciousness could be a property of something that is ontologically independent of the brain?”
    Him: “It just comes down to conflicting intuitions.”
    Me: “So your argument boils down the the claim that consciousness must be explained by appealing to the existence of something that is capable of consciousness, and you don’t see how that could be the brain, so it must be an immaterial soul, even though you don’t really see how the soul can be conscious either, except to presuppose that consciousness is a property of souls?”
    Him: Well, I wouldn’t put it like that…”

    I’m still waiting on a more detailed account of how he would put it.

    • Tayglas

      I’m curious as to what you would say about conscience.

      • Eric Sotnak

        Conscience? or consciousness?

        • Tayglas


        • Eric Sotnak

          I would say conscience is closely tied to feelings of pride or shame. But more to the point, I don’t see how it is relevant to the questions of theistic morality, consciousness, or dualism.

  • Nemo

    This guy doesn’t prove free will exists. He simply says, free will exists because there are sad philosophical implications if it doesn’t. You don’t want me to be sad do you?
    That isn’t an argument. Also, since many branches of Christianity state that you cannot believe it under your own power, but must instead have your brainwaves overridden by the Holy Spirit (Lutheranism and Calvinism, most notably), then free will would disprove those worldviews.

    • Dorfl

      He simply says, free will exists because there are sad philosophical
      implications if it doesn’t. You don’t want me to be sad do you?

      As Zach Weiner put it:

    • You don’t want me to be sad do you?


  • GubbaBumpkin

    5. How Did Human Consciousness Come Into Being?

    Why the exclusive focus on human consciousness? It is not so different in principle from consciousness in other animals. This would be like focusing on how cheetah running speed is so fast, while completely ignoring its relationship to other felines and other mammals.

    The theory of evolution, by revealing the relatedness of humans to the rest of the world of biology, enables advances in philosophy by allowing us to discard such anthropocentric, pre-modern views.

  • Paul

    “Appearances can be deceiving. ELIZA was computer program with which users could have a typed conversation, as if with an attentive friend. …Perhaps we’re seeing an ELIZA effect when we look at DNA, imagining intelligence where there is none.”
    I don’t think this analagy works. ELIZA had a programmer. It took an intelligence to create ELIZA.

    • Yes, it did. That’s not the part that I’m pointing to as being an analogy.