An Argument for Atheism – Part 2

In Chapter 2 of The God Delusion, Dawkins gives an argument for atheism. Here is my reconstruction of this argument (see “An Argument for Atheism”, posted 7/17/08):


1. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
Therefore
2. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives late in the history of the universe.
Therefore
3. No creative intelligence is responsible for designing the universe.
Therefore
4. The God Hypothesis is false.
Therefore
5. God does not exist.
Therefore
6. Atheism is true.

Premise (1) is a controversial claim, so the argument, as it stands, begs the question. However, Dawkins is aware that (1) is controversial, and he argues in support of this premise elsewhere in The God Delusion. So, Dawkins is not guilty of the fallacy of begging the question (unless his arguments for (1) are in turn based on unsupported controversial assumptions). This is just a summary of his reasoning, not the entire argument.

I will not evaluate the truth of this premise now; my focus will be primarily on clarifying the key terms and the logic of the argument.

Although (1) is relevant to (2), it is not clear that premise (2) follows from (1). As it stands, the inference of (2) from (1) appears to be a non sequitur. If the process of evolution of a creative intelligence started prior to the beginning of the universe, then there could have been a creative intelligence (capable of designing something) in existence early in the history of the universe, and even prior to the beginning of the universe.

One way of getting around this objection is to supply a missing assumption to the argument in order to make the inference from (1) to (2) work:

A. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the universe began to exist.
Other assumptions might also be used to fill the logical gap between (1) and (2), but this one seems to me to be the most likely to be operative here. The combination of (1) and (A) appears to logically support or imply (2). If the evolutionary process started some time after the universe began to exist, and if the evolutionary process took a long time (“an extended process of gradual evolution”), then the end product of that process (“a creative intelligence” capable of designing something), could not appear until long after the universe began to exist (“arrives late in the history of the universe”).

The inference of (2) from (1) is still not entirely solid, even with the addition of assumption (A) to the argument. Some key concepts are vague, specifically: “extended process of gradual evolution” and “late in the history of the universe”. If an “extended process of gradual evolution” could take place in a few million years, and if “late in the history of the universe” means billions of years after the beginning of the universe, then the inference is invalid. So, some clarification in terms of quantity is needed for (1) and (2).

It took billions of years for humans to arrive on the scene (after the Big Bang), so one might conclude that any creative intelligence would take billions of years to evolve. But this general conclusion is shaky, since it is based on just one example. It would be much safer to conclude that it would take at least millions of years for a creative intelligence to evolve. Let’s increase the probability of the generalization a bit more by drawing the line at one million years:

1a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of at least one million years of gradual evolution.
A. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the universe began to exist.
Therefore
2a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after the universe began to exist.

One way to ensure that (A) is true is by defining “the universe” so that it includes everything that has ever existed. On this definition, there could not be any process of evolution going on prior to the beginning of the universe, because any process of evolution requires something to exist; there must be something that is evolving at any given point in the process. On this definition of “the universe”, assumption (A) becomes a self-evident truth.

This way of ensuring the truth of (A) will not work, however, as I shall show in my next post on this argument for atheism.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    BB said: It would be much safer to conclude that it would take at least millions of years for a creative intelligence to evolve.

    It is pointless and dangerous to speculate on how long it takes for ‘creative’ intelligence to evolve. As you rightly say we only have a single example and, therefore, cannot safely produce any generalised rules from it. We simply don’t know how long the process takes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to cyberkitten:

    Your comment seems overly skeptical to me. If we find evidence of multicellular life forms on Mars, it would be reasonable to infer that those organisms did not pop into existence in a just a few years, but rather evolved over millions of years, at the least.

    The uncertainty comes in, I believe, when we start thinking about other possible universes which might have laws of physics that are different from our universe. It is hard to see how to reasonably generalize on the basis of what occured in this universe to such radically different universes.

    Although humans evolved only once on this planet, we have a number of different examples of the evolution of species and of families and kinds of organisms, and all major developments took at least millions of years.

    3 billion years ago: single cell organisms appeared.

    1 billion years ago: multicellular organisms appeared.

    500 million years ago: plants and fungi colonized the land and vertibrates appeared.

    300 million years ago: amphibians appeared.

    200 million years ago: mammals appearded.

    100 million years ago: birds appeared.

    85 million years ago: primates appeared.

    6 million years ago: hominids appeared.

    less than 1 million years ago: homo sapiens appeared.

    We have lots of examples supporting the idea that major evolutionary changes require millions of years, but all of the examples are from the planet Earth. By analogy, we can generalize to draw reasonable conclusions about the pace of evolution on other planets, like Mars.

    But when we start talking about other possible universes, then your skepticism seems reasonable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    BB said: We have lots of examples supporting the idea that major evolutionary changes require millions of years, but all of the examples are from the planet Earth.

    Indeed. *All* examples are from Earth. We do not know if conditions here were especially conducive to evolutionary processes or especially harsh. We do not know if the evolution of our brand of creative intelligence is unique to this planet. It could be a statistical fluke that if the whole of evolution could be run again on Earth would not be replicated. We just have no idea because we have no real base of data to work from.

    As you said for the majority of the planets history life has been of the single-celled variety. Is that normal or abnormal? There is no way for us to tell. How important are asteroid strikes or other catastrophic events to the evolutionary process? Do they speed things up by clearing niches or retard things with mass extinctions? We simply don’t know because we only have data from one planet.

    BB said: By analogy, we can generalize to draw reasonable conclusions about the pace of evolution on other planets, like Mars.

    No we can’t and if we start out with assumptions like that we’re likely to be surprised by what we find. The history of Mars is rather different from ours. I expect the pace or evolution – if any occurred – to be different too.

    BB said: But when we start talking about other possible universes, then your skepticism seems reasonable.

    I think with that idea we move beyond speculation and enter the realms of science-fiction.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Cyberkitten said: “Indeed. *All* examples are from Earth. We do not know if conditions here were especially conducive to evolutionary processes or especially harsh. …

    … How important are asteroid strikes or other catastrophic events to the evolutionary process? Do they speed things up by clearing niches or retard things with mass extinctions? We simply don’t know because we only have data from one planet.”

    Yes, we only have data from one planet. But we have data from 3 billion years of evolutionary history on that planet, and that planet represents a wide variety of climates, environments, and conditions.

    Take the hypothesis that “A creative intelligence capable of designing something can evolve in one million years or less.” We have data on what amounts to 3,000 different periods lasting one millions years. In how many of those 3,000 different periods did a creative intelligence evolve from non-living matter, or from a single-cell organism, or from a simple multi-cellular organism? Zero (so far as we know now).

    Not only have there been 3,000 periods of one million years, but the Earth encompasses several different kinds of environments. All three phases of matter are present in large quantities: gas, liquid, and solid. The atmosphere is composed of gas, the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers are liquid, and soil, sand, rocks and minerals are solid.

    Each of these categories appears in a wide variety of conditions. Oceans are salt-water, but lakes and rivers are fresh water. The oceans of Earth are not a single environment. There is the ocean environment near the surface and shore, such as the ocean near the beach in Santa Barbara. The water temp is probably in the 60s, and the pressure is approximately one atmosphere. But there are places in the ocean that are 11,000 meters (36,000 feet) below the surface. There is terrific pressure exerted on anything that has a seven mile high column of water resting on it. This pressure is about 1,000 times greater than atmospheric pressure at sea level.

    Ocean can be divided into Neritic zone, (down to 200m), Bathyal zone (200m-4,000m), Abyssal zone (4,000m-6,000m), and Hadal zone (deeper than 6,000m). Ocean water can be quite warm near the surface, but when you go down to the lower part of the Bathyal zone, the temperature drops to about 4 degrees centigrade. Of course, you don’t have to go 3,000 meters deep to find cold ocean water; you can find cold water right at the surface of the Arctic Ocean (ice covers most of this ocean year round).

    The atmosphere is not uniform either. Temperatures and pressures vary significantly in different parts of the atmosphere: troposphere (0-10 Km), stratosphere (10-50 Km), mesosphere (50-80 Km), and thermosphere (80-300 Km). It can get toasty here in the troposphere, but way up in the thermosphere temperatures stay around -80 degrees centigrade. The air pressure at sea level is about 1,000 millibars, but up in the thermosphere the pressure can drop below .001 millibars.

    Living things can also evolve on land, either above ground or underground.
    Temperatures, climates, and conditions vary widely on land. Consider the climates found in North America, for example: Tropical Wet, Tropical Wet-Dry, Steppe, Desert, Mediterranean, Subtropical Humid, Marine West Coast, Continental Humid, Subarctic, Tundra, Ice Sheet, and Highlands.

    Arctic Bay, Canada can drop to – 31 degrees Fahrenheit in February, and from personal experience, temperatures in Fresno, California can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Greenland Ranch, California hit 134 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer of 1913. Prospect Creek Camp, Alaska dropped to –80 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter of 1971.

    Siberia is not in North America, but it illustrates the wide range of temperatures found on Earth:

    “The southwesterly winds of Southern Siberia bring warm air from Central Asia and the Middle East. The climate in West Siberia (Omsk, Novosibirsk) is several degrees warmer than in the East (Irkutsk, Chita). With a lowest record temperature of -71.2 °C (-96.1 °F), Oymyakon (Sakha Republic) has the distinction of being the coldest town on Earth. But summer temperatures in other regions reach +36…+38 °C (97-100°F). In general, Sakha is the coldest Siberian region, and the basin of the Yana River has the lowest temperatures of all, with permafrost reaching 1,493 metres (4,900 ft).” (from “Siberia” article in Wikipedia).

    So, there have been 3,000 periods of one million years during which living organisms could arise and evolve, and there have been a wide variety of environments and conditions in different locations (as well as at different times over the history of the Earth). But in none of those periods and in none of the various and diverse environments has a creative intelligence capable of designing something evolved from non-living matter, or from a single cell organism, or from a simple multicellular organism. This is a good reason for concluding that it is unlikely that a creative intelligence capable of designing something evolved on Mars in less than one million years.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    BB said: This is a good reason for concluding that it is unlikely that a creative intelligence capable of designing something evolved on Mars in less than one million years.

    But I think you're missing the original point (or what I took to be the original point).

    Creative intelligence [CI] (i.e – us) took about 4 billion years to evolve on Earth. This does not mean that CI takes 4 billion years. It just mean that it took 4 billion year here. On other worlds it could have take 3 billion or 6 billion or never. We simply don't know what gave rise to our kind of intelligence. Why didn't it happen millions of years ago? Or even hundreds of millions of years? Did a giant rock falling from the sky prevent dinosaurs from being the first creative intelligence on Earth? Maybe they were only 10 million years away from gene splicing & rockets to the Moon? There's no way to tell.

    Maybe if it wasn't for the Great Extinctions Earth would have evolved CI literary *ages* ago…. Maybe on other worlds it did just that. The only way to find out is go there – or wait until they come here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    CK said: Maybe if it wasn’t for the Great Extinctions Earth would have evolved CI literary *ages* ago…. Maybe on other worlds it did just that.
    ========

    It is certainly possible that the great extinctions greatly delayed the evolution of creative intelligences on Earth, and that there is a planet in some other solar system on which CIs have evolved much more quickly than on Earth because of the absence of the sorts of events that caused great extinctions here (e.g. asteroid collisions with Earth).

    However, unless such great extinctions can be shown to have occurred every few million years on Earth (I doubt they were that common), the three billion years of evolutionary data from the Earth still makes it very unlikely that a creative intelligence will have evolved in just one million years on a given planet (such as Mars).

    Because of the vastness of the universe, a tiny probability of this happening on a given planet (like Mars) might, nevertheless, end up being a likelihood when considering the scope of the entire universe. A one-in-a-billion chance of this happening on any randomly selected planet might show that this is likely to happen on some planet or other.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    BB – I’m curious to know where this ‘one million years’ from inanimate matter to Creative Intelligence comes from. It goes way beyond speculation I think.

    The point that I’m trying (and seemingly failing) to get across is that although it took 4 Billion years to evolve us (as an example of creative intelligence) this can in no way be used as a norm for such a process. On other worlds it could have taken 3 Billion years or 10 billion.

    It is easily conceivable (for example) that if a giant rock hadn’t fallen from the sky 65 million years ago then dinosaurs may have evolved CI 10 or 20 million years later – that’s 45 million years ago. That’s 40+ million years before we existed. That’s what I’m saying about the evolution of CI – there are *so* many unknown factors – many of which might be unique to Earth – that we can only give a *very* rough approximation (IMO so rough as to be virtually useless) about how long such a process takes.

    Saying that it couldn’t happen in a million years is like saying it couldn’t happen in a thousand years – pretty much meaningless (or a reasonable definition of a straw-man argument).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15712687960643444659 Mastigando cinzas

    I had this book twice in my hands, The God Delusion, but sadly it is rather expensive here in Johannesburg. I also saw it in Portuguese. Would love to read it, if I could borrow it from a friend. Julio. Johannesburg.


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