20 Questions

Are there “20 Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer” ? I was asked how I respond to Peter Saunders’ claim that there are, and how I would respond to those questions. According to God’s Advocate, Saunders thinks “there have not been any decent responses to [these twenty questions] in the past 40yrs,” but evidently he isn’t bothering to read any of the best answers available or even to find out what they are. The questions themselves are pretty much boiler plate, and consist mostly of fallacious loaded questions that ignore the established science behind nearly every one. I noticed that my work over the years has answered every one, except a few that are so lame I really can’t believe he thinks they need a better answer than science has already provided (at least with respect to whether atheism is true–I think science can always know or learn more about anything, but at a certain point you know enough to know God is not involved in whatever it is).

So here are my answers to his twenty questions…

(1) • What caused the universe to exist?

Fallacy of loaded question. It is not established that the universe began, and thus had a cause at all.

Our universe began (at the Big Bang) but we have no way of knowing anymore what if anything preceded that event. And as for what caused our one specific universe, we already know the answer to that: the Big Bang did (an event and process that completely eluded all divine Christian revelation for two thousand years, as well as all divine Muslim and Jewish revelation throughout the whole of their existence). As to what caused the Big Bang, we have many viable theories (from Hawking’s The Grand Design to Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing to Vilenkin’s Many Worlds in One, all of which predict and explain numerous strange and often specific features of the universe that no theology has ever been able to deduce from the hypothesis that God did it). As far as figuring out which one is right, cosmological scientists are working on it. They’ve made tremendous progress. Theology has made none.

If we revise the question to ask something more abstract like “Why does the universe exist?” (thus admitting that maybe it has always existed in some form, and thus was never ultimately “caused,” but asking instead “why” it exists instead of something else, or nothing at all), then the answer is the same as why a god is supposed to exist. (He just does? Then the universe just does. He exists necessarily? Then a universe exists necessarily. We can play this game forever.) If we revise the question into something conditional like, “If all existence itself began, then what caused it?,” then the answer is any of dozens of possible things, all of which have a vastly lower specified complexity than a complex intelligent mind and therefore have a far greater prior probability (see The God Impossible)–and by explaining observed evidence better, they also have a far greater posterior probability as well. This follows from the argument from scale, including the mind-boggling scale of this universe’s lethality and inhospitability to life (indeed the universe is far better designed to generate black holes than life).

I discuss all these facts throughout my entries in the Carrier-Wanchick Debate. I have more recently described ten possible causal or explanatory theories of why an orderly universe exists in previous comments on my blog (and we needn’t know which are true to know they are all simpler theories, and often based in more background evidence, than any god hypothesis). I more formally outline why the evidence (the nature of the universe we find ourselves in) is far more likely on any such godless hypothesis than on any rational form of theism in my chapter “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed” in The End of Christianity (pp. 279-304). I’ll quote one key section of that to give you an idea of what I mean:

[T]his universe is 99.99999 percent composed of lethal radiation-filled vacuum, and 99.99999 percent of all the material in the universe comprises stars and black holes on which nothing can ever live, and 99.99999 percent of all other material in the universe (all planets, moons, clouds, asteroids) is barren of life or even outright inhospitable to life. In other words, the universe we observe is extraordinarily inhospitable to life. Even what tiny inconsequential bits of it are at all hospitable are extremely inefficient at producing life—at all, but far more so intelligent life …. One way or another, a universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain life. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that’s not what we see. Instead, almost the entire universe is lethal to life—in fact, if we put all the lethal vacuum of outer space swamped with deadly radiation into an area the size of a house, you would never find the comparably microscopic speck of area that sustains life (it would literally be smaller than a single proton). It’s exceedingly difficult to imagine a universe less conducive to life than that—indeed, that’s about as close to being completely incapable of producing life as any random universe can be expected to be, other than of course being completely incapable of producing life. (pp. 295-96)

And yet…

That is exactly what we would have to see if life arose by accident. Because life can arise by accident only in a universe that large and old. The fact that we observe exactly what the theory of accidental origin requires and predicts is evidence that our theory is correct. (p. 290)

Because without a God, life can only exist by chemical accident, such a chemical accident will be exceedingly rare, and exceedingly rare things only commonly happen in vast universes where countless tries are made over vast spans of time. Likewise, a universe not designed for us will not look well suited to us but be almost entirely unsuited to us and we will survive only in a few tiny chance pockets of survivable space in it. Atheism thus predicts, with near 100% certainly, several bizarre features of the universe (it’s vast size and age and lethality to life), whereas we cannot deduce any of those features from any non-gerrymandered God hypothesis (while gerrymandered hypotheses all grossly violate Occam’s Razor).

(2) • What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

Another fallacy of loaded question. It is not established that the universe is finely tuned. Physicists Hawking, Krauss, and Vilenkin have all challenged the claim that it is. Victor Stenger summarizes a lot of the reasons why it probably is not in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning.

If we revise the question into something like “Why does this universe have fundamental constants that make life possible?,” then we are back to the cosmological cause issue above (which I answer in the same sources I link to there), combined with the weak anthropic principle: the probability that a conscious entity will observe itself in a fine-tuned universe if there is no god is 100%; but that probability is not 100% if there is a god, because a god could make a far more habitable universe (I demonstrate this point extensively in my chapter in The End of Christianity cited above, so read that before challenging it here). Thus the priors decide the odds, and there is no evidence to back a high prior for a god, but plenty to back one for godless causes. For example, quantum mechanics and the size and multiplicity of cosmic objects are all established facts in precisely a way that supernatural causes and entities are not, thus any theory appealing to the former has a far higher prior probability (having far greater support in background evidence).

This means some form of multiverse theory is intrinsically more likely. There are many planets in the solar system. Many solar systems in the galaxy. Many galaxies in the universe. And…that’s as far as we can see. By logical extension, the next structure to expect to find multiplied is a kind of thing we have established very definitely exists: a universe. We have no comparable basis for expecting there to be a god. There are other arguments for a multiverse besides (e.g. see Ex Nihilo Onus Merdea Fit), and arguments against it fail on basic logic. For example, the claim that a multiverse posits many entities when one will do is false, because, as the just-linked article proves, a multiverse is logically entailed in the absence of any god or power to decide what will or won’t exist; and also because all scientifically credible multiverse theories deduce the multiverse from a single, simple cosmological theory–for instance, chaotic inflation starts with a simple theory about a quantum vacuum and deduces an infinitely expanding multiverse from that premise as an inevitable consequence. A quantum vacuum, even with all its properties (most of which are confirmed scientific fact), is vastly simpler than any intelligent mind, much less a mind of divine complexity.

(3) • Why is the universe rational?

Fallacy of meaningless question.

If revised to mean “Why is the universe uniform/orderly?,” see my linked ten possibilities under the cosmological question above, as well as my answer in the referenced chapter there (in The End of Christianity, esp. pp. 298-302). Ditto the latter if we revise this question to mean “Why is the universe intelligible/understandable?,” which I also answer there (we evolved a brain capable of inventing tools to help us understand it). If we revise the question to mean “Why is the universe intelligent?” or “Why is the universe designed?,” then we end up with the fallacy of begging the question.

(4) • How did DNA and amino acids arise?

This is a question only scientists can answer. Theologians have certainly never answered it (beyond mere hand waving).

For DNA, many viable scientific theories are on the table, and they already work very well. As far as which is true, protobiologists are working on it (in the meantime, you can purge yourself of creationist lies about this science at TalkOrigins). Theists have no viable theory at all–as in, one that predicts the specific properties of early (protobiotic) life, i.e. a theory from which you can deduce the fact that RNA likely preceded the appearance of DNA, that some DNA codons evolved before others, and the chemistry of both RNA and DNA, and that there would be either, and that single-celled life would evolve for three billion years before becoming advanced enough to form multicelled life, and so on, all features that scientific theories of biogenesis effectively predict and explain but no theology ever has, or ever even so much as anticipated.

(On how modern theories of life’s origins make far more sense without a god hypothesis, that in fact the evidence pretty much refutes any god hypothesis by rendering it among the least probable theory imaginable, see my chapter on design arguments in The End of Christianity, esp. pp. 289-92 for biogenesis and pp. 284-89 for all subsequent evolution).

For amino acids, scientists have already answered this: they are created in stellar and planetary kitchens, confirmed by observing them in stellar clouds and meteorites, and confirming in the lab that they are inevitably produced by conditions in space as well as on prebiotic planets. No intelligence required. (See the Wikipedia entry on abiogenesis, esp. the section on extraterrestrial amino acids, and the entry on the Miller-Urey experiment, which has been multiply repeated and updated, including a recent experiment replicating the effect of spontaneous amino acid formation in deep space environments.)

(5) • Where did the genetic code come from?

Evolution. The most likely pathway was: the first self-replicating molecule was probably something like PNA (which does not require homochirality), which evolved into RNA, which then evolved into DNA. The code itself evolved, beginning much simpler than it is now and getting more developed over time (we have actual evidence of this). In the PNA world and possibly the early RNA world no genetic code existed at all; it was an adaptation that gradually developed in RNA, and passed on to DNA. See the summary on Cassandra’s Tears and a very smart video illustrating the process and the relevant facts on YouTube (posted by CDK007).

(6) • How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

Another fallacy of loaded question. The existence of true irreducible complexity has not been established. Ever. Not once in any peer reviewed science journal.

If you revise the question into something like “How does apparent/present irreducible complexity evolve?,” then the answer is through intermediary pathways (such as scaffolding, exaptation and spandrels). TalkOrigins has this one well enough covered I shouldn’t even have to provide a link. But the video I linked in answer to the previous question above covers the molecular evolution story.

(7) • How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?

A combination of parallel development and proto-cultural (memetic/linguistic) evolution.

For example, some of those “116 families” are artificial languages (e.g. sign language is one family, and esperanto is part of another family called “constructed languages”) and polyglots (e.g. pidgins and creoles), languages that merge multiple families by cultural mixing of speakers. In both cases, we can fully account for their origin. And in both cases we have models for how the other families originated, as we also do in the observed evolution of languages within each family (e.g. how words and grammatical rules are invented and transformed over time). Some of those families, in fact, are likely evolved forms of earlier protolanguages that can’t be reconstructed on present evidence (and thus many families might actually be descendants of the same language). So the total of independently-originating language families that have extant descendants is certainly less than 116, and in any event most of these language families are tens of thousands of years old (lest Saunders be weirdly imagining that the Tower of Babel incident is supposed to have caused them).

One proposal (the details of which have been challenged, but not the underlying principle of there having been a deeper root language underlying many existing families) is the Ruhlen-Gell-Mann thesis. Co-evolution of several root languages is also likely. It is intrinsically mythical to assume language began when there were only two people (in the Garden of Eden), when in fact it would have begun when there were already thousands of isolated tribes, each developing its own communication systems simultaneously, most of which dying out and being replaced by more successful languages (as tribes died out and intermarried and traded and allied with each other) resulting in the growth of early language groups, which gave birth to the hundred or so extant language families. The dominant success of only six families over the other hundred is a direct reflection in the present of what will have occurred prior to the appearance of the proto-languages now reconstructed from extant families: most invented languages will have died out, and only a few stragglers hang on, in the form of their many descendants.

There is really no difficulty explaining how separate human (or even pre-human hominid) tribes would each gradually invent a language to communicate with. It’s just the same as independently developing similar but distinct and original art and tool use and manufacturing techniques, agriculture, metal forging, folk medicine, and so on. Interbreeding among tribes then passed on all useful innovations that facilitated language invention and use (those not getting it died out, those receiving these genes lived on in their more successful progeny).

(8) • Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?

Yet another fallacy of loaded question. They didn’t. Most regions’ first cities long post-date that period, and several long predate it. Thus the constricted range (of just 2,000 years) is bogus. Also, a slog lasting 2,000 years is not “suddenly.” That it was in fact a period of 6,000 years only makes that word’s use more absurd here.

If we revise the question to “Why did cities first appear on five of the seven continents within a five or six thousand year period?” (because the earliest cities in Mesoamerica and China, the last of these five continents to get cities, date c. 1,500 BC, while earliest cities in the Ancient Near East, the first known in the world, e.g. Ur, date near 7,500 BC, and that’s a 6,000 year difference), then the answer is that this is when the warmer Atlanticum phase of the latest interglacial period had begun (around 8,000 BC), making city-supporting agriculture possible. Consequently an inevitable co-evolved structure (the city) was independently invented in five continents over a 6,000 year period (the sixth to get cities, Australia, did not see one until Sydney was founded there by the Brits in 1788 AD; the seventh, Antarctica, has yet to get one, despite being twice as large as Australia).

Other than in Australia, all these earliest cities were inhabited sites for thousands of years before they became cities, and all gradually grew into cities over time. They did not spontaneously appear out of nowhere, nor suddenly transition from village to city overnight. The variance of thousands of years between when, for example, Mesopotamia and China saw their first cities, can even be explained by cultural diffusion (six thousand years is plenty of time for the idea to migrate along trade routes and nomad trails from one to the other), if we had need of that hypothesis. But we don’t. Because a city is just a natural economic and social evolution of any centralized community (like a village): just add resources and stir.

(9) • How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

Fallacy of loaded question again. It has not been established that there is any difference between independent thought and the interaction of chance and necessity.

If we revise the question to mean “How is intelligent thought possible if chance governs the universe?,” then the answer is that the universe is governed by an interaction between chance and necessity, not chance alone, and intelligence is a product of that interaction. If we revise the question to mean “How is intelligent thought possible if deterministic necessity governs the universe?,” then the answer is that intelligent thought requires deterministic necessity to exist. The only way you can reach a logically valid conclusion from a set of premises is if you always reach the same conclusion from those premises, which requires a deterministic system; chance then causes deviations from logical necessity, making intelligence less reliable than it would be otherwise. Which, of course, is exactly what we observe. From which we should conclude God sucks at inventing information processing systems.

(10) • How do we account for self-awareness?

This is another question only scientists can answer. Many theories are being explored. Theists, by contrast, have no viable theory at all–as in, a theory that predicts the peculiar features of conscious information processing, such as its dependence on an array of separate physical brain centers, its dependence on chemical balances, the presence of universal cognitive biases and illusions, the ladder of brain complexity development corresponding to level of consciousness and intelligence in animals, and so on. Cognitive scientists can predict all of these features from a common meta-theory: the brain generates self-awareness through chemical information-processing (e.g. mirror neurons, intentionality centers, and narrative memory construction, storage and retrieval, etc.). Theism has no comparable theory. And as for details not yet worked out, science is making steady and impressive progress. Theology has made none.

See my section on this point in Sense and Goodness without God III.6, pp. 135-208, and VI.2, pp. 353-60. The most notable point to reiterate here, is what I noted in the Carrier-Wanchick Debate (and reiterate again, with a more extensive bibliography and broader application, in The End of Christianity, pp. 298-302):

The scientific evidence confirming the necessity of a functioning human brain for human consciousness to exist is vast and secure. We have identified where in a brain different kinds of memories are stored, where emotions and reason operate, where each kind of sensory experience is processed, and so on. We have observed that if we physically remove or deactivate any one of these parts, the memories or abilities it contains then cease. It follows that if we take away all the parts, everything that we are will cease. [Atheism] predicts this must be the case, since on [atheism] there is no other way to have consciousness except as the product of a large, delicate and complex physical system (lying at the end of an extremely long, meandering, faulty process of trial and error over billions of years). But this is not what we’d expect if [theism] were true, since [theism] entails that consciousness can exist and function without a brain, and there is no known reason [any plausible] God would imbue us with any other kind of mind, and good reason to expect he wouldn’t. [Atheism] thus predicts exactly what we observe, while [theism] predicts the opposite: that we would instead be made “in God’s image,” which is not what we observe.

For example:

God could have provided every human being with a brainless mind that (a) always operates correctly without need of food or oxygen, (b) is incapable of being damaged by any wounds or disease, (c) always perceives and reasons correctly, [and] (d) doesn’t pose a physical threat to a mother’s life or health during delivery (as human brains do, in contrast with all other mammalian brains [due to disproportionate size, to accommodate their immense required complexity])…

Whereas, we can predict from the premise of atheism that our minds would lack all four of those things, that in fact the only way we could exist as conscious beings if there is no god nor anything supernatural is with a dangerously large, complex brain, which is highly vulnerable to injury, disorder and disease, massively dependent on consuming a huge chunk of our resources (in food and oxygen, e.g. our brains consume around 20% of our blood, sugar, and oxygen, a huge waste in resources relative to a soul, which requires no blood, food, or oxygen), with many innate gaps and flaws in its information processing capabilities.

That we have brains, and brains like these, therefore proves atheism is more probably true than any credible theism.

(11) • How is free will possible in a material universe?

Once again, a fallacy of loaded question. It has not been established that free will even exists. And whether it does depends on how it is defined.

If we revise the question to ask “How is libertarian free will possible in a material universe?,” then the answer is it isn’t, because such a thing doesn’t exist (and has certainly never been shown to exist). In fact it’s logically impossible. See my discussion of this point in Sense and Goodness without God III.4, pp. 97-118. If we revise the question to ask instead “How is compatibilist free will possible in a material universe?,” then the question answers itself (compatibilist free will is by definition compatible with a material universe).

(12) • How do we account for conscience?

Cognitive evolution. This is actually one area where the science of brain evolution has nearly sewn up the answer to how,  why, when, and where in the brain our moral conscience developed. We in fact have at least three of those, which occupy different parts of the brain, one (the Right Temporoparietal Junction) that responds emotionally to an agent’s intentions rather than the consequences of their actions, and generates discomfort when we go against the expectations it generates in us, and another (the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex) that tracks consequence-based empathy for other people that also generates discomfort when we go against it, and a third (the Amygdala) which reinforces our feelings of distress when we harm others or violate our own principles.

Some people have one or the other of these brain centers damaged and they start employing moral reasoning that is different from their former selves (in accord with the element of their “conscience” that is lost with that brain center). Likewise, most moral dilemmas are a product of these brain centers coming to contradictory conclusions. There have been several excellent books about this lately, I hardly need bother naming any. But IMO the best is the three-volume set Moral Psychology edited by Sinnott-Armstrong. That’s somewhat more affordable than the otherwise excellent The Moral Brain: Essays on the Evolutionary and Neuroscientific Aspects of Morality.

For examples of recent good science on this there is an article in the March 29 (2010) issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which the brain center that evaluates intentions was numbed by magnets, altering the moral conscience of the subject accordingly. This expands on work summarized in “The Functional Brain Architecture of Human Morality” in Current Opinion in Neurobiology 19.6 (December 2009, pp. 678-81

Compare what we’ve achieved here by way of explanation, with what theology has. Then maybe you’ll realize why religion is a complete waste of our time.

(13) • On what basis can we make moral judgements?

On the basis of what sort of world we want to live in and what sort of person we want to be, which are in turn based on the consequences of either outcome (what sort of world we create and what sort of person we become) in respect to fulfilling all of our higher order goals (love, happiness, health, security). This is a logically necessary truth even on theism. See my chapter on this point, “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them)” in The End of Christianity (cited above), pp. 333-65. See also the Carrier-McKay Debate and follow up, and my article on Moral Ontology, for even more detail on the true nature of moral facts.

(14) • Why does suffering matter?

Hidden assumption: this question is meaningless unless rephrased as “Why does suffering matter to us?” The answer is because we, as social animals, evolved brains that care about that, and we, as conscious intelligences, can deduce that everything works out better for us if we care about that. These conclusions follow in multiple ways, which I discuss in the chapter cited for the previous question above; but in even greater detail in Sense and Goodness without God V, pp. 291-348.

(15) • Why do human beings matter?

Hidden assumption: this question is meaningless unless rephrased as “Why do human beings matter to us?” The answer is the same as above, which produces in turn the more obvious reason that we like their company and need their help. We also see in them ourselves, and the awe-inspiring potential that entails. Which brings us back to the sort of world we want to live in and what sort of person we want to be–in each case, the answer for any rationally informed person is: one that respects human consciousness and potential.

(16) • Why care about justice?

Asked and answered: we, as social animals, evolved brains that care about that, and we, as conscious intelligences, can deduce that everything works out better for us if we care about that.

(17) • How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

Agency overdetection. Which is an evolved cognitive bias in human brains (an inevitable product of natural selection), which can only be overcome by installing a corrective “software patch” called logical reasoning and scientific method. Most humans have not run a good install of that software yet. Almost all of those who have, however, don’t believe in the supernatural.

In fact, the percentage of belief in the supernatural among any population runs in inverse proportion to the quality of their national or local educational system. And yet no education system on earth is devoted as effectively to teaching logical reasoning and scientific method as it could be, indeed those are not the primary goals of any educational system on earth, but a secondary byproduct of them at best. Most educational systems aim at rote memory of isolated facts, mechanical computation skills, and literacy, with general abstract reasoning a distant second, or merely a derivative goal, and the latter still does not entail competence in logic or scientific methodologies. But get loaded up well with those, and byebye belief in the supernatural.

Other cognitive biases contribute to the effect of erroneous belief in the supernatural, such as the assumption of disembodied causation, which results from our inability to see the causes (thus belief in a “life force,” and similar constructs like “humors,” which was a near universal, yet false, belief the world over for thousands of years: it was produced by our seeing effects with no evident cause, although now we know their causes to be reducible to chemistry and thermodynamics) and cognitive illusions (thus belief that the earth doesn’t move and is flat, also universal false beliefs the world over for thousands of years, was based on the illusion of relative motion of the sun and our brains’ visual resolution automatically flattening what is in fact a curved horizon).

This is all why increased scientific knowledge tracks an inverse proportional decline in supernatural belief.

(18) • How do we know the supernatural does not exist?

Science. If the supernatural existed, we’d have found some by now.

(19) • How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?

I assume this is meant to ask how we know there “isn’t” such an existence, since it is directed at atheists who don’t believe there is. Thus revised, the answer is that all evidence points to what I already noted for question 10 above: the brain is clearly necessary to generate consciousness–and store memories, personality traits, skills and reasoning abilities, process sensory information, etc., in other words everything that constitutes “you”–so dissolution of the brain entails dissolution of all these attributes. That puts the burden of evidence on anyone who would deny this.

By analogy, all evidence points to my wealth being a function of the money I can spend and the property I can use or sell. Take away my money and property and I will lose my wealth. If someone wants to insist that invisible houses and dollars and limbs remain in my possession, in some sort of magical parallel dimension, and therefore I still have all that wealth even after it is destroyed, the burden is on them to prove this preposterous claim.

See Victor Stenger’s take down of the typical lame attempts to do that in “Life After Death: Examining the Evidence” in The End of Christianity (pp. 305-332).

(20) • What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

Long since asked and answered. See my chapters “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable” in The Christian Delusion (pp. 291-315) and “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible” in The End of Christianity (pp. 53-74).


  1. Grumps June 1, 2012, 4:59 pm

    Can I just click “like”? No? Then well done! How you have the patience to do that amazes me. I start to answer and then just.. “oh, for fuck’s sake” takes over. Silly questions given serious answers.. again, bravo. (But haven’t you something better to be doing with your time?)

    1. Grumps said:

      “I start to answer and then just.. ‘oh, for fuck’s sake’ takes over.”

      I think the “oh fer fux sake!” comes from a healthy instinct.

      “But haven’t you something better to be doing with your time?”

      I think that’s a very good question. And I don’t mean that we should just surrender to the faithful and leave them alone. On the contrary. I just don’t think jumping through every one of their hoops is the most efficient way to fight them.

      I have no idea what the last 17 questions might be.

  2. kraut June 1, 2012, 6:03 pm

    Some of those questions reveal such utter stupidity – yes, there exist stupid questions, those that are posted without even thinking what they reveal about your state of intellectual competence or rather the lack thereof (in the sense of not thinking before asking the question, i.e.: Why care about justice, Why do human beings matter, How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families).

    I am sorry for you to have to even deal with such utter crap, voiced by a person apparently too lazy, ignorant or mentally incapacitated to even formulate them in such a way as not to reveal such mental deficiencies behind them, a person of stunning impoliteness to pose questions he/she could have found answers for by just reading about the subjects in other the the usually fundamentalists cesspits.

    1. To be fair, most of the questions are interesting questions we ought to answer. It’s just that we’ve answered them already (e.g. where amino acids came from), or have made a lot of progress in answering them (where did different language groups come from), and we aren’t finding God at the end of any of them. If anything it’s the contempt for what science has already done on these issues, and is currently still doing, that annoys me.

  3. Concentratedwater, OM June 1, 2012, 7:27 pm

    Wonderful. #17 was particularly fascinating to me, while I find #18 falls into what could be called the “Victorian patent officer’s argument”.

    To whit: “Everything that can be invented has been invented” is a famous (mis)quote, which we can now laugh at from our lofty 21st Century position.

    I feel that for you to say “If the supernatural existed, we’d have found some by now” is perfectly analogous to the Victorian gents who thought technology could advance no further. See also: Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law.

    http://www.quotationspage.com/weblog/2005-08-26-239/ and links therefrom.

    My answer, BTW and FWIW, would be: “We don’t. There are absolutely no credible data suggesting it does, and therefore I do not factor it into my worldview. I fully support scientific investigations into its existence.”

  4. nick June 1, 2012, 9:01 pm

    For #18 I would say that we don’t know for certain that the supernatural does not exist, we just do not have any good evidence of it.

    You could also argue that if supernatural existed and was testable and detectable, it would be part of this world and therefore natural, so therefore can’t exist.

    Good answers though.

    Let’s start on similar list for christians:

    1. What evidence can you present that your religion is true?
    2. What evidence can you present that your religion is the correct one?
    3. Of all the different beliefs in christianity, which is the correct one?
    4. If Jesus died for my sins and all is forgiven, why be good at all? It would seem like I should do whatever I want since I’m already forgiven for it, or I can just repent and still get into heaven.
    5. Which parts of the bible are literal and which are fiction, and how do you tell?
    6. Why does god only appear to people who already believe? If he wants more people to believe, why not appear to atheists?
    7. Does god care more about beliefs or actions? Can a good atheist get into heaven? What about a devout serial killer?
    8. If belief is more important, does your god want to send me to hell? If he does not, but will if I do not believe, why not just give me real testable, convincing evidence? Hiding himself from me, then condemning me for not believing in him makes him kind of a dick. If he does want to send me to hell, then your god is an immoral monster and not worthy of worship.
    9. Why does the bible condemn wearing fabric of two different fibers, but not slavery or rape?
    10. There are thousands of different versions of Christianity, not to mention the other religions. Why doesn’t god do a better job of setting the record straight?
    11. If god created the universe out of nothing but his own power, why did he need a rib to create Eve? Seriously, did he reach a limit or something?
    12. Why didn’t god include any explicit scientific advances that weren’t known at the time in the bible. Any verse that supposedly predicts or talks about a scientific advance was either known at the time, wrong, or simply people interpreting a verse to match a scientific principle.
    13. Why does god need to be worshiped at all? Seriously, he created the universe and its inhabitants just so we could sing his praises? If so, he has a major ego problem. Also, why is god so obsessed with your sex life/genitals?
    14. Is god more powerful than Satan? If yes, why not just destroy/take power from Satan? If no, then god is not all powerful.
    15. How do you know god is more moral than Satan? If it’s because the book says so, then that is arbitrary and you’re basically just listening to god saying “I’m the good one, follow me.” If it’s due to observing actions and judging god’s actions to be better, then can’t we just use those standards to judge our actions, making god unnecessary?
    16. Does god have a plan? If yes, then why pray to him to change an outcome to the one you want? You’re just asking him to abandon his plan. If no, then why let good things happen to bad people?
    17. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunami waves, natural disasters, Twilight, Justin Beiber, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Please explain how any kind of just god would allow these to exist.
    18. In the past, according to the bible, god has appeared to his followers in the form of a flash of light, a talking burning bush, a cloud, and other forms. He spoke directly to followers and apparently gave clear instructions. Why doesn’t he still do this? Why has he reduced himself to blurry images on toast?
    19. As a Christian, if you do not accept evolution, why are you offended at suggestions you share a common ancestor with modern apes, but OK with the idea of being created out of mud and magic by an invisible man in the sky?
    20. According to the Jesus story, god sent his only son to die because humans broke rules he made, and he wanted to forgive us. Why couldn’t he just forgive us, instead of needing a human sacrifice of himself to himself, in order to forgive us for breaking his rules. Wouldn’t a simple “I forgive you” have worked? I mean seriously, Wile E. Coyote and Starscream could find holes in this plan.

    That’s all I got so far.

    1. For #18 I would say that we don’t know for certain that the supernatural does not exist, we just do not have any good evidence of it.

      Except that if by “know for certain” you mean “with 100% certainty” then this is not a relevant statement, since that is true of all facts whatever (we do not know with “100%” certainty that the earth is not flat and boats don’t fall off the edges of it). If, however, you mean by “know for certain” a statistical statement like “certain to an extremely high probability,” then it is not a true statement, since we do indeed know “to an extremely high probability” that the supernatural does not exist, for the same reason and to the same degree as we know faeries don’t exist, fire breathing dragons don’t exist, ghosts don’t exist, and aliens haven’t invaded our planet and set up diplomatic channels with the world’s governments. Yes, maybe we’re wrong about any of these things, in which case evidence can correct us. Ditto the supernatural. But until then, our background evidence establishes the probability that the supernatural could have evaded discovery for hundreds of years and billions of man hours of hard core searching with advanced instruments and methods all the world over, is an extremely low probability. Right down there with secret alien invasions and faerie kingdoms.

      You could also argue that if supernatural existed and was testable and detectable, it would be part of this world and therefore natural, so therefore can’t exist.

      This is an unusable definition of “natural.” See my explanation of why it is illegitimate in Defining the Supernatural.

      [As to your questions, some of them Christians already have ready answers for. But the others, especially if more carefully worded to prevent them dodging the real question, are indeed lacking in plausible answers.]

  5. nick June 1, 2012, 9:08 pm

    Oh and…

    21. If god is all-knowing and everywhere, why pray for events? I mean shouldn’t god already know there’s a problem? If he knows, is he sitting up there going “I can save that 2 year old with the inoperable brain tumor, but only if another 20 people pray to me” … “I would have saved that kid, but he didn’t pray enough, so fuck him”? If god will only save someone if you pray to him, that does make him kind of a jerk.

  6. Excellent responses Mr. Carrier. I also took a swing at these questions. Some are loaded questions and others are poorly worded. Thank you for your thorough responses.

  7. WBFD125 June 1, 2012, 10:36 pm

    How do we account for self-awareness?

    Elephants are self aware. Ever seen a video of elephants that come upon a skeleton of one of there own. Watching them handling the bone and passing them between each other is pretty amazing. And I don’t think that they were thinking “…and god created elephant in his own image”. Or watch a video of Koko the gorilla. I think there is some self awareness there too.

    1. Indeed. Dolphins also show evidence of self-awareness, as well as magpies (the only non-mammal to do so). And this is not solely through mirror tests. Magpies have exhibited numerous converging lines of evidence that they might possess advanced cognition (just like dolphins and elephants), and though their brain anatomy is radically different (bird brains have undergone parallel, not sequential, evolution with mammals), their brain complexity and brain-to-body ratio are comparable to apes and dolphins. (The best tests of course would be experiments establishing metacognition, which have been done on apes, but other animals in the prospect category are not cooperative enough to perform such tests. Nevertheless, the data supporting the conclusion is strong.)

    2. busterggi June 5, 2012, 1:00 pm

      Nothing shows as much self-awareness as a cat.

      In fact unless its hungry or bored or needs to be scratched, a cat shows no awareness of anything but itself.

      1. I assume you are joking. But just for those who might mistake you for being serious, I have to point out that that’s neither true (cats are actually social animals that show considerable awareness of group threats, children in need of care, and the need to seek out, maintain and obey social hierarchies, and much else besides) nor relevant (this is not the same kind of “self-awareness” we are talking about and that the Christian is asking about…e.g. cats have no concept of self, no theory of mind, and no narrative memory, they don’t even have body maps of themselves or others, e.g. they fail mirror tests).

  8. otrame June 2, 2012, 12:02 pm

    Gee, Richard, you don’t seem to have struggled much with those questions.

    I, like you, can pass the scientific ones off to the scientists that deal with them. The moral questions are easy as well. Social animals need to find a way to be social in the face of each individual’s greed. Empathy and an idea of fairness is what it takes to accomplish this. As Terry Pratchett says, justice only exists if we believe in it.

    As for the last question(s), really one could write a book. In fact, many people have. But briefly: Somebody told a story to explain why their prophet up and died on them (the Jesus myth is based on a real rabbi) or somebody collected a bunch of messiah stories that were being passed around among a population being occupied by a culture very different from their own (the Jesus myth is completely myth).* Easy-peasy.

    *On this issue I think we are still at the “you pays your money and you makes your choice” stage. I like the idea that it is all something that someone (Paul?) made up, added to by a number of others, and compiled when Rome decided to use a still very nebulous new religion for its own purposes, but really, I think that the idea that there was a rabbi who told people that they should be excellent to each other, who was executed because he didn’t accept the authority of either the Sanhedrin or Rome, and was deified by his followers makes an interesting story too. I will be watching this argument with considerable interest. I tend toward the Jesus is completely myth idea, but I am not completely convinced. In fact, we may never have enough data to be really sure about the issue. As an archaeologist, I am used to this situation.

  9. Schopenhauer June 2, 2012, 2:11 pm

    Dear Dr. Carrier,

    Regarding (1): I would actually be interested in your opinion concerning the nature of time (A- and B-Theory) which is closely related to the Kalam-Argument as well as your blogpost “Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit”.

    I always thought the proponents of the B-theory have it pretty much right when they argue for the possibility of the universe (or multiverse, for that matter) being a multi-dimensional static object (brute fact) with time being just one of its dimensions (and the experienced ‘flow of time’ being a subjective illusion of a mind remembering the last and anticipating the next moment in time).
    This seems to me to be a very elegant solution to the age old question of the origin of all existence since it obviously avoids the ‘coming into existence’ of anything as even Dr. Craig admits in his writings.

    Maybe you could answer this question in (necessary) relation to the rivaling interpretations of special relativity (Neo-Lorentzian vs Minkowskian interpretation)

    1. I am a B-Theorist. See my blog on the ontology of time (and the section in my book it links to addresses all of Craig’s attempts to challenge B-Theory; he commits many semantic goofs in his treatment of it, such as confusing “relative” with “subjective” and then concluding there is no “objective” tenseness in B-Theory, which is false).

      But even B-Theory must answer the “why this” question (i.e. as opposed to nothing, or some other static object). Likewise, there is still a scientific question about why that specific structure from start to finish, which we translate into tensed terminology about causation. “What caused my soda can to fall over?” does not become a meaningless question just because all existence is a tenseless static object; so, too, “What caused the Big Bang?” The alternative would be “nothing, everything that happens is just random and causally disconnected from everything adjacent to it on the time axis,” but if that were true, the world would be a very different place, so we know that isn’t it. So the question “What caused this universe?” remains meaningful and theoretically answerable.

      But you are right, Craig has acknowledged that B-Theory defeats the Kalam cosmological argument, because it allows a brute fact rebuttal to its two key premises (that an actual infinite series cannot exist and that what exists must have had a beginning). However, that it undermines Kalam does not mean it dodges the questions “why this” and “what caused the Big Bang.” Cosmological scientists are the only ones competent to find an answer to the latter (theologians have never shown any real capability to), and the former has numerous godless answers that posit far simpler brute facts than a god.

    2. Richard,

      ““What caused the Big Bang?” The alternative would be “nothing, everything that happens is just random and causally disconnected from everything adjacent to it on the time axis,” but if that were true, the world would be a very different place, so we know that isn’t it.”


      If all possible realities exist then an infinite number of those would be worlds that look like one event causes another and an infinite number of the rest of those wouldn’t look that way. What’s the difference between the existential *illusion* of causality and what one might call “real causality”?

      And even if this is unproven, it’s certainly not outside the realm of what might be true and so we can say we “know” that it isn’t true any more than we can say we know whatever the nature of mechanism behind “real causality” is.

      1. Ben: If “everything that happens is just random and causally disconnected from everything adjacent to it on the time axis” then there would be no order (no physical laws, no persistent structures, and therefore no planets or bodies or brains, therefore no people, therefore no us). We observe the reverse. Therefore “everything that happens is just random and causally disconnected from everything adjacent to it on the time axis” is false.

        But yes, a Boltzmann universe is possible, so if asked to define “is false” we would say “false to an absurdly high probability” and not “false to 100% certainty.” On why this is absurdly improbable (and thus safely ruled out) see my discussion in The God Impossible. (In short: given the premise that all possible universes exist, there will be vastly more structured universes like ours than Boltzmann universes like ours, therefore the sampling probability that we are in a Boltzmann universe is vanishingly small.)

        All knowledge is below 100% certainty (even if trivially). All. With one single exception: raw uninterpreted present experience. Apart from that, even logically certain truths we have a nonzero probability of being mistaken about; and even God cannot have 100% certain knowledge, because there is a nonzero probability he is the victim of a Cartesian Demon tricking him into believing he is omniscient and infallible. So equating knowledge with 100% certainty is simply bad philosophy (and yes, that means a lot of big wig philosophers are bad philosophers: because there is armchair philosophy, and philosophy that conforms to reality, and only the latter is worth our concern).

        On all knowledge as necessarily probabilistic see my brief discussion here.

  10. Reginald Selkirk June 2, 2012, 5:33 pm

    (17) • How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

    Consider the perversity of the question. The questioner means to suggest that belief in the various polytheistic pantheons: Greco-Roman, Germanic, Hindu, etc.; various animistic deities; souls which enter an afterlife; souls which are reincarnated as other living beings; various rain gods, volcano gods, fertility gods, tribal gods, various incompatible afterworlds; etc. etc. etc.; are somehow evidence that the questioner’s preferred deity actually exists. That’s Chutzpah.

  11. left0ver1under June 2, 2012, 9:38 pm

    evidently he isn’t bothering to read any of the best answers available or even to find out what they are.

    Duane Gish is infamous for doing this, and is a perfect example of it.

    (1) He makes ridiculous errors in his “work”.
    (2) His errors are pointed out to him in peer review or debate.
    (3) He “agrees” to fix his errors.
    (4) He continues to use fraudulent writings, repeat steps 2 and 3 ad nauseum.


  12. Quite comprehensive, and I’d say quite easy to follow. Thanks.

    I disagree a little with your answer to number 18, though. The supernatural is necessarily an empty set, by definition. Nature is everything that exists.

    I’m not saying this proves the non-existence of ghosts (though of course they don’t exist), but if there were any, then they would necessarily be natural phenomena.

    1. Richard, your definition of ‘supernatural’ is an interesting one, and one you are of course free to use, but it doesn’t match with any usage that I am familiar with, and it doesn’t overlap well with any of the dictionary definitions I have looked at.

      I understand that there are problems with all the dictionary definitions, as they either don’t really describe anything or else describe things that aren’t really considered supernatural (e.g. Merriam Webster: ‘departing from what is usual or normal’) – but thats my main point: the word (as usually defined and understood) is utterly useless.

      1. Richard, your definition of ‘supernatural’ is an interesting one, and one you are of course free to use, but it doesn’t match with any usage that I am familiar with, and it doesn’t overlap well with any of the dictionary definitions I have looked at.

        Then you aren’t reading anything by believers in the supernatural. Nor observing how the word is even used almost routinely by nonbelievers. As my blog article on it shows, the word is not used the way you claim. At all. By anyone. Except in straw man attacks against believers (even by official science associations and courts). The article I linked to says enough on that point. I instruct anyone concerned about this to actually read it.

        You are also simply wrong about “dictionary definitions.” I don’t know what weirdo dictionaries you are reading, but my Webster’s says:

        Supernatural. [adjective:] 1. of, pertaining to, or being ‘above or beyond what is natural or explainable by natural law’. 2. of, pertaining to, or attributed to God or a deity. 3. of a superlative degree; preternatural. 4. pertaining to or attributed to ghosts, goblins, or other unearthly beings; eerie; occult. [noun:] 5. a being, place, object, occurrence, etc., considered as supernatural or of supernatural origin. 6a. supernatural beings, behavior, and occurrences collectively. 6b. supernatural forces and the supernatural plane of existence.

        You know what isn’t there? Your definition.

  13. mikmik June 3, 2012, 3:14 am

    I have one question Christians are afraid of: Why would you even think atheists struggle to answer questions that they have already answered?

    It’s more like, 20 answers that Christians struggle to understand.

  14. David Evans June 3, 2012, 4:00 am

    That is just excellent. Except that it gives me several more books and links I absolutely must read.

  15. Drivebyposter June 3, 2012, 1:49 pm

    Wow. Those were awful questions. I made it to 3 before I stopped trying to answer them in my head. What a waste of time that list is.

  16. Brian June 3, 2012, 10:56 pm

    Hi Richard
    Saunders has put a post up giving his answers to the first 6 questions – http://pjsaunders.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/twenty-questions-atheists-struggle-to.html. I ran it through ‘Advanced Plagiarism Checker’ a free online article checker, and what do you know? Well, you should have a look. I don’t have the time to take this further myself, but I thought it might give you, and others who have responded to Saunders, an idea of what sort of character you’re dealing with here.

    1. I can’t speak to that, but he does show his naivety and ignorance. For example, he confuses “beginning of observable universe” with “beginning of spacetime” (even after supposedly reading my blog post which points out that scientists have long abandoned that confusion). He then ignores all the other possible “causes” of spacetime that I mention or link to and then insists only god could be the cause. He also says things like Martin Rees says “that science cannot explain…fine-tuning” when in fact Rees is a famous proponent of multiverse theory as being that explanation. Saunders must be confusing “science hasn’t proved which explanation is correct” with “science has no idea what might be the cause of it” (even assuming fine tuning exists, the second statement is false, and as to the first, science also hasn’t proved God did it, so he can’t use the first premise to bolster his theory; we thus have to compare hypotheses, such as his with theirs, which he fails to do). And he again ignores everything I said about this (for example, he gives an Occam’s Razor rebuttal to multiverse theory, which my article already anticipated and refuted–he makes no mention of my refutation nor attempts any response to it). And so on down the line (he ignores everything I said about the evolution of the DNA code; etc.). He even states howlers like “the most sophisticated laboratories are unable to produce human life’s 20 amino acids” (um, Mr. Saunders, you might want to catch up on the literature here…you know, like in the links I directed you to in my blog post?). He even argues by “Einstein said” (yeah, because that’s not fallacious), and quote mines (ignoring such remarks from Einstein as “from the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist,” Letter to Guy Raner, Jr. [1945]).

      This explains why Saunders thinks atheists haven’t answered these questions. He ignores us whenever we answer them. This is a fine example of delusional thinking.

    2. G.Shelley June 5, 2012, 10:40 am

      I read through his answers. I think he either didn’t read responses such as the one at this post, didn’t understand them or is just hoping that readers won’t follow the links. He makes no attempts to address any of the arguments and most of the ones he does make were already taken apart here.

    3. mikmik June 5, 2012, 5:15 pm

      Argh, I couldn’t even read up to his rebuttals, assuming there are some. I got as far as this:

      Second, many atheists and theists hold their beliefs with considerable tenacity. Just as there are theists who reject out of hand observations, theories and worldviews which challenge their theistic convictions, so many atheists have an a priori commitment to atheism which leads them to seek exclusively materialistic explanations (and reject wholesale supernatural explanations) for all phenomena from religious experience to the origin of the universe and biological complexity.

      So effin what? Even if true, it is irrelevant how many atheists, or theists for that matter, have an agenda. Evidence and logic are evidence and logic, even if the Pope happened to accidentally present an empirically and rationally rigorous argument for something.

      Second, even if all but one atheist had an agenda (which of course they don’t), Pete Saunders still has to account for the arguments presented by the atheist.

      Third, he has no way to tell if any particular person has a bias except by rationally refuting their arguments and seeing how they react.

      I like that you, Richard Carrier, were acknowledged for your rigorous and cross referenced response. I like your style, man!

    4. Brian June 7, 2012, 4:37 am

      Saunders’ confused view of Rees’ position is explicable when you notice that two paragraphs of Saunders’ discussion of Rees are almost verbatim unacknowledged transcriptions of parts of a 2001 review of Rees’s book by Peter Roberts from an apologetics website called ‘Vision’. http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=599

      This article by Roberts has more spin than a warnie wrong’un and Saunders doesn’t seem to have used any other sources, hence he doesn’t get the full picture of Rees’ view – like he would have if he had actually done some research and read Rees’ books rather than just cribbing a book review from a cheap apologetics website.

  17. Alex June 4, 2012, 4:23 am

    Not sure why there’s no comments here yet, but; thanks! It is terribly important to point out the fallacies of loaded questions; people might think they are clever when all they really are are biased within a conceptual model of thought they don’t dare challenge. This list is a nice reference for a lot of stupid “clever” questions.

    1. [Just FYI, on comment delays: I run full moderation, so comments can take a couple of days to appear. Especially over weekends (as I do not usually work on weekends, I spend them with my wife).]

    2. Bumrats! I keep forgetting the full moderation thing, and the fact that you have this very quirky and abnormal thing called “normal life” (although it is a bit quaint). 🙂

  18. Denis Robert June 4, 2012, 6:29 am

    On question 20, you forgot to refer to your book “Not the Impossible Faith”, which fully accounts for the “growth of the church” argument Christians make (and yet conveniently ignore when it comes to Islam).

  19. Rieux June 4, 2012, 7:23 am

    Are there “20 Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer“?

    Oh, almost certainly. Here’s my research protocol (admittedly far below academic rigor but worthwhile for this discussion, I think):

    (1) Go to well-attended atheist convention.

    (2) Use simple questionnaire to distill a group of atheist test subjects (discarding agnostic-but-don’t-you-dare-call-me-atheists, window-shopping theists, etc.) from attendees.

    (3) Administer to subjects long and difficult questionnaire that is full of “Final Jeopardy!”, million-dollar-question-on-“Millionaire,” and general Ph.D.-level academic questions in widely varying fields.

    (4) Offer prize for highest score and for various percentage levels of correct answers.

    (5) Record subjects taking questionnaire described in (3) to enable further analysis of objective data (other than right/wrong percentage) on “struggl[ing].”

    My bet is that the questionnaire in (3) won’t have to be all that long (50 questions? 100?) in order for a substantial proportion of the subjects to “struggle to answer” a particular 20 of them.


  20. Steerpike June 4, 2012, 7:24 am

    Browse through any Google or You Tube search results page and there’s always at least one entry (usually many) with a title like “The ONE question Atheists can’t answer” or “I DARE any atheist to respond to this simple question…” Of course, if you are foolish enough to click, it’s usually one of these from this list, or some other such PRATT (Premise Refuted A Thousand Times). Face it: if there really were a single, unanswerable refutation of atheism (let alone a conclusive argument in favor of one particular religion), every Sunday school student would have it drilled into his or her head from the time they could speak. Apologetics is really just the art of salesmanship. There are no good arguments in their favor, so they have to resort to smokescreens, emotional appeals, misdirection and outright lying to make the sale.

  21. Otis Graf June 4, 2012, 9:17 am


    A more meaningful (and challenging) form of Question 3 is: “Why is the universe comprehensible to humans?”

    In many of your arguments against Christianity you rely on scientific knowledge as if it gives us a true (if perhaps incomplete) picture of the reality of the universe. So let’s agree that the universe is truly comprehensible to the human intellect. How do you explain that comprehensibility, given that humans are the undirected products of contingent evolutionary processes? How did evolution infuse into the human brain the ability for a deep understanding of the mathematical universe, at the extremely large and the extremely small?

    Thanks for your answer.
    Otis Graf

    1. As I said in the article itself, I answer that question “in The End of Christianity, esp. pp. 298-302″.

      In short, evolution did not “infuse into the human brain the ability for a deep understanding of the mathematical universe, at the extremely large and the extremely small” (if it had, the Scientific Revolution would have occurred in the year 150,000 B.C.). Rather, evolution infused into the human brain the ability to develop languages, tools and procedures. We then toyed around with those abilities for hundreds of thousands of years until we hit upon some really useful “languages, tools and procedures,” like logic and mathematics (and then, e.g., telescopes and microscopes). The rest is history.

      For the details, see the section I cite in End. Or if you are a real glutton for punishment, read my vast discussion of this issue in my Critique of Reppert. And indeed, make sure you are aware of the fact that the universe is not as intelligible as a god could have made it: see Our Mathematical Universe.

  22. Kevin June 4, 2012, 10:45 am

    Nicely done…a great resource for future reference.

    It’s going to be hard for some Christians to fathom that most every one is — in the immortal words of Mona Lisa Vito — “a bullshit question.”

  23. Richard, if you really think you answered all those questions, you are suffering from delusions.

    I don’t care if you post this, I just want you to be careful about believing your own propaganda.

  24. jamessweet June 5, 2012, 4:49 am

    An interesting point here is that if you really think it all the way through, numbers 1, 3, 10, 11, 13, 16, and arguably 14 and 15 as well (many of which are legitimately difficult questions) encounter all of the same problems with or without the existence of a god.

    Taking just the libertarian free will + material universe thing… how would libertarian free will make any more sense in a supernatural universe?? What does the “soul” buy in terms of consciousness, self-awareness, libertarian free will, etc., that simple matter does not?

    I admit it is very disturbing to contemplate how crude matter could give rise to a being such as myself with subjective experience. It’s very easy to explain how a being who acts as if it has subjective experience could arise (i.e. a P-zombie), but the fact that I actually feel stuff seems kinda… weird. Ultimately I think there’s a problem with the question (I consider P-zombies a nonsensical idea; it’s like a machine that appears to be an internal combustion engine, functions exactly like an internal combustion engine, and no test can distinguish it from an internal combustion engine… but it’s not “really” doing internal combustion) but nevertheless, one cannot deny that it is disturbing to contemplate.

    But how does a “soul” help? How is it any less disturbing to envision how a “soul” could give rise to subjective experience? Really, the only reason this answer feels more plausible is because the concept of a “soul” makes no fucking sense, therefore one is discouraged from contemplating it any further.

    Religious explanations for the questions I enumerated at the beginning of this post do not have a single advantage over secular answers. (By contrast, a religious answer to e.g. question 4 does have some advantages, in that it is easy to understand and provides a much more specific answer than science is ever likely to be able to provide in that regard… of course, religious answers to that question suffer from the fatal flaw of being complete bullshit, but there is at least a surface appeal) Many of those are difficult questions to answer, but that difficulty is not eased one iota by a religious explanation. The only reason it seems to be is because the religious explanations create a bunch of smoke, and then it becomes difficult to continue through to the logical conclusion.

    But really, any argument that can be used to attack libertarian free will, self-awareness, morality, something-rather-than-nothing, etc., in a material universe can also be used to attack those same concepts in a supernatural universe. The supernatural aspect of it buys you squat.

    1. “I admit it is very disturbing to contemplate how crude matter could give rise to a being such as myself with subjective experience.”

      I dare say I hear a lot of these kinds of ponderings, and often a follow-up to more theistic nonsense. However, there’s a first thing to say;

      You have a too high view of yourself.

      I don’t mean this in a bad way, though, but we humans have a tendency to over-think, over-value, over-dramatize, over-anthromorphize, and create models of thought with too-much-bias-in-them view of the world. Even the Self that thinks these things are, really, not as complex as we like to think it. Yes, we can think and rationalize and use logic, but, truly, none of these things are overly complex in themselves using a complex enough apparatus (or set of processes), and indeed, we have replicated much of this already using even more crude and less complex computer systems (and we’re only at the baby-stages; give it a 100 years, and we’ll talk about sophisticated machines that will have electronic brains that surpass even us mere humans; at least we can program for not introducing so many flaws and limitations).

      We keep saying our brains are so complex, but really, what yardstick are we using for that measurement? Is our brain truly that much more complex than a dolphin, elephant, gorilla or whale brain? The brains of these animals have not been studied well, and we know very little indeed about the inner language of these animals. I’m pretty sure they use much of that complexity for things that we don’t need to, and that they are heavily constrained by parts of their anatomy and environments, but given enough time, is there any reason why they could not follow us in what we most of the time think is our intelligence?

      Most of the time I think the culprit comes from the traditional concept of duality, which, the more we dig into the brain (sometimes literary), find that the Self is a mode of the brain that is laggy, fuzzy, and binds the various parts of the brain together in thought, and perhaps that this creates a false sense of Self which has evolutionary advantages but does not represent the highest form of intelligence we can imagine.

      What is consciousness? If we find perfectly natural explanations for this (for example, we know of three distinct evolved layers of the brain, from the primitive mechanistic to the more complex parts of imagination and foresight) it means that our consciousness is nothing but a mirage. We build models of thought, and we use a lot of brain power on models, comparing, sorting and categorize them. The conscious self might just be a natural consequence of the complexities. We might just be an accident, and remember that genius is heavily linked with mental illnesses, and that might not be an accident. We might think our imagination is amazing, but it just might be mental prediction gone wild.

      Sam Harris latest video (on death; google it) pushes also on the idea that the Self is really a noise box. You know when there’s too much noise, you can’t concentrate, the brain flitters? What if our consciousness is, essentially, us dropping in and out of where the brain connects to our senses, creating a sensation that we name “Self”? Harris has a part where he talks about mindful meditation (non-religious meditation), where you try to cut the noise and feel all those sensations and muscles you normally take for granted. Our consciousness might be another word for a distracted brain.

      Back to the original comment. You use the word “terrifying”, but why? I find it truly, utterly, amazingly fantastic that matter could – after all these billions of years – shape itself (using physics, no less!) in such a way as to create a sensation of observing itself, describe itself and experiencing itself, whatever “itself” truly means. We are the universe understanding itself in tiny individual chunks. I’m so happy and excited to be one of those chunks that – for a brief moment in time – get to understand that I *am* the universe. I am looking at the other parts of what I am, and documenting it, enjoying it, living it.

      I find this a far more exhilarating and amazing fact than any religious story could ever cook up. I’m not terrified; I’m in awe.

      1. Alex:

        We keep saying our brains are so complex, but really, what yardstick are we using for that measurement? Is our brain truly that much more complex than a dolphin, elephant, gorilla or whale brain?

        Depends on what you mean by “that much more.” They are probably more complex (the number of neural-synaptic connections is significantly greater). You’d have to pick a “how much” line to draw before saying it wasn’t “enough” of a difference (enough for what?). But if all you mean to say is that dolphin-elephant-gorilla-whale brains are nearly as complex as human brains, then that’s already evident in the fact that their cognitive abilities are as well.

        However, you are confusing complexity with specified complexity. The internet is more complex than a human brain, but vastly stupider and incapable of performing even the basic functions of human brains (like walking or having an intelligent conversation). Complexity is not sufficient. The complexity has to be specific. For example, a whale brain might be more complex than a human brain if measured by synaptic connections, but most of those connections involve base functions like managing the skin sensory system. Whales have vastly more skin than humans, thus vastly more nerves to keep track of. But that doesn’t contribute one whit to whales being intelligent or conscious or anything remarkable like that.

        To have consciousness requires a vastly complex system (the complexity of a human brain is vastly greater than the complexity of any nonliving thing known in the universe), but having a vastly complex system does not entail consciousness (e.g. the internet; a whale’s tactile pre-cortex). A entails B; but that does not mean B entails A.

        What makes human brains special is not their complexity, but their capabilities, which just so happen to require vast complexity.

        But even so, obviously, as you note, other lineages of animal could also have evolved into sentient civilizations, and may one day do with or without our help. But that’s irrelevant to whether being a sentient civilization is remarkable. Potential sentients do not have the same value as actual ones. A whale a billion years from now is not going to be your trauma surgeon today.

        Likewise, we are certainly neither the most complex nor the most intelligent beings possible. But like a beautiful woman, the existence of prettier girls does not make her ugly. It doesn’t even make her plain. Thus the potential for greater intelligences does not diminish the amazing value of the intelligences we have. Indeed, like wealth, there are very rapidly diminishing returns. Once you reach a certain level, everything beyond that is just a perk.

        Harris has a part where he talks about mindful meditation (non-religious meditation), where you try to cut the noise and feel all those sensations and muscles you normally take for granted. Our consciousness might be another word for a distracted brain.

        That doesn’t work. I achieved altered states of consciousness through meditation exactly as Harris describes and I can tell you I am still fully conscious in them. And wholly un-distracted. So there goes that theory.

        Consciousness is simply an awareness of self or of being (I say the latter because when we achieve a breakdown of a sense of self, in meditation for instance, we are still consciously aware of being, but misattribute it to the universe being conscious of itself rather than us being conscious of it, which is a cognitive illusion, not some profound insight into reality).

        But yes, we are a part of the universe, and in that sense we are the universe’s consciousness of itself. It’s just that there is more than one of us (and thus more than one consciousness of the universe). And we don’t live forever (we are, in the end, still just machines…very remarkable machines).

        1. Richard: “However, you are confusing complexity with specified complexity. ”

          No, no, I’m avoiding the specificity of it to make the point that we don’t know much of what goes on in, say, a whale brain. We can make certain assumptions through autopsy, but as to how *their* complexity affect their abilities we know very little. Also note I didn’t go down the path of “intelligence”, another tricky yardstick (although, perhaps, linked to the concept of capabilities).

          “Whales have vastly more skin than humans, thus vastly more nerves to keep track of.”

          Exactly, and this is why I said “they are heavily constrained by parts of their anatomy and environments”; a lot of their brains are used for things we don’t have to, and vice-versa. Where parts of the brain no longer used for what it evolved for, other capabilities can evolve.

          For example, could our ability to fantasise be linked to our need for longer and deeper sleep (or even the other way around)? What are dreams if not the brain numbed of senses, caught in the echo-chamber of memories?

          “What makes human brains special is not their complexity, but their capabilities, which just so happen to require vast complexity.”

          I would say that human abilities comes from complexity of certain patterns. Abilities is something we derive from that complexity; it has formed in such a way to produce it. Anyway, I think we’re piling on the word “complexity” a bit too much anyway, but given two different people – one a bit dim, the other seriously smart – we cannot talk about abilities as if they’re physical things or stand-alone entities, but need to talk about how complex patterns of connections shape what capabilities those brains have as part of a whole.

          “that’s irrelevant to whether being a sentient civilization is remarkable”

          Not sure I’ve said that I don’t find it remarkable? I think the thrust of my post was to say that this shouldn’t be *terrifying* as much as amazing.

          “A whale a billion years from now is not going to be your trauma surgeon today.”

          I’m sure Deepak Chopra would disagree with you. 🙂

          “I achieved altered states of consciousness through meditation exactly as Harris describes and I can tell you I am still fully conscious in them. And wholly un-distracted. So there goes that theory.”

          I didn’t say you weren’t conscious in there. I said that perhaps that feeling we get of consciousness comes from the complexity of senses the brain has to deal with, that the word we use for “thinking” is functionality of the brain for numbing down the volume of other senses.

          Btw, I’ve practised meditation for years, so I too know what’s in there. I know you are conscious, sometimes even more so, but by not “thinking” you sense other senses much more. So the question becomes; what if your thinking conscious self is just an internal noisebox? It could be mistaken identity.

          “which is a cognitive illusion, not some profound insight into reality”

          Well, I think you can say both. There’s no denying that we are parts of the universe observing it, nor can we deny that the universe is in us from the materials we’re made of, nor can (or should) we deny how natural laws shaped bits of the universe into sentinent biological machines. I think the problem you’re referring to is when we anthropomorphize on the concept “universe” and those natural law; that’s when we apply some deeper meaning which I don’t believe is there.

          “we are, in the end, still just machines…very remarkable machines”

          And *that* is awe-inspiring; I feel deeply sorry for religious folk who choose some made-up easy version for the amazing mind-boggling complex story of reality.

        2. Alex:

          We’re in agreement with all you said in the last comment.

          Except just one thing…

          So the question becomes; what if your thinking conscious self is just an internal noisebox? It could be mistaken identity.

          Consciousness is not a mistaken identity or an accidental noisebox. It’s an evolved ability to model one’s own mind and the mind’s of others (and to tell them apart) in order to plan your own and anticipate others’ behavior. The stages of consciousness in other animals shows the gradual evolution of this feature (a gradual escalation you don’t see in an accident). For example, mirror neurons and the ability to model other minds exists in monkeys, and gets more sophisticated in apes. The trajectory to human consciousness could even be predicted from this.

          It’s not a mere noisebox because it is incredibly selective: the model your consciousness builds ignores 99% of what your brain is doing and selects only very specific things to stitch together and only when it thinks you need them (it’s not meta-intelligent so it doesn’t always guess correctly, e.g. in bootcamp after a day of mopping floors my brain dreamt of mopping floors all night, to practice a skill my brain mistakenly thought must be important because it was new and I had to do it all day; the brain’s “noisebox” is the same routine: your brain is continually loading and running apps it thinks you might need, similar to Google trying to guess what you are typing to save you time).

          It’s also not “mistaken” identity because it is a machine for modeling and integrating your actual identity (the memories are really your memories and not someone else’s, the narratives it builds are really about you and not someone else, the reasoning process behind a decision is really yours and not someone else’s, the visual field it stitches in is yours and not someone else’s, etc.). It gets the details wrong from time to time (if you mess with it, it will fill gaps by making stuff up; it will try to make sense of confusing information or conflicting beliefs by making stuff up; etc.), but these are errors in perceiving (or even constructing) your identity, not mistaken identities.

          Your brain also clearly knows how to tell identities apart and in fact is so good at this it can only be an adaptively evolved function. This is called metacognition and it’s one of the most essential and useful attributes of consciousness (certain other animals, like monkeys, exhibit metacognition). You can model someone else’s identity in your head (who they are, what they are like, how they think, what they are thinking, what they will think, etc.) using an apparatus anatomically similar to the one your brain uses to model your own. Yet your brain never confuses the two. (Except in various brain disorders, but disorders are not normal human attributes but malfunctions of them. Even when your brain mistakenly assigns a story you heard about someone else as having happened to you, your brain is still distinguishing them from you, it’s just getting wrong which information goes with which, another error in perceiving and constructing your identity, not a mistaken identity.)

        3. Richard: “Consciousness is not a mistaken identity or an accidental noisebox.”

          I think we’re still agreeing, just slightly talking past each other. What I was referring to when I said “it could be mistaken identity” was dualism, or, more specifically, that we have a self that is disjoint from our body; we have found something within us, and we’ve called it “soul.”

          However, I don’t think there are any hard edges in evolved curiosa; the brain doesn’t have distinct set-aside lines for where the nerves of touch from your arm and your cheek are, rather it’s a gradient that creates borders from usage. For example, in some people with amputated ghost pains we find that since the usage of the part of the brain doing the nerves from the arm gets overtaken by activity dealing with nerves from their cheek. The brain isn’t set or carved functionally like we often see it in those brain charts where they put labels on what areas of the brain does what; that’s just a result of embryology where it’s more or less determined to end up like those maps most of the time. But there’s as you know tons of abnormalities, even to the point where the line between genius and madness isn’t always that clear. I don’t think we can truly draw straight lines through parts of our brain activity to separate automata from conscious decisions. For example I don’t normally think about breathing, but I still can control it at will, like most people. Most people can’t control hiccups, though, while some can (I can), showing automata for most but controlled by the brain in some. Some do complex algebra in their heads without thinking (much), most don’t. And on and on it goes, where the line between automata and consciousness is terribly personal.

          (I have a personal theory of conceptual modelling and basic categorizing that the brain does, and how it drives the traits that the brain produces, including personalities and some times health, but I’m just a layman)

          But let’s return to my noisebox, because I find it important. The noise I’m referring to is what most people would think of as “the voice in the head”, our “thoughts” and “deliberations.” Yes, there’s clearly consciousness without the voice, but surely if you’ve done a lot of meditation you know that it is keeping that voice quiet which is one of the hardest things to do. And so the question is; what is that consciousness that is left when the noisebox is gone, that voice in your head?

          If you cut the voice in your head, close your eyes, stuff your ears full of something, what is your brain doing apart from the automata? And so, I think we’re talking about different things when you say ;

          “It’s not a mere noisebox because it is incredibly selective: the model your consciousness builds ignores 99% of what your brain is doing”

          I’m not saying the *brain* is a noisebox, I’m saying that our ability of conscious thought just might be. If we cut that voice, and cut other senses we usually use to model the world (sight, sound, taste, touch), what does it mean to be conscious? I’m arguing here that the noise voice *is* our consciousness. Perhaps this is self-evident to a lot of people, but for someone like me who does a lot of work on models and conceptual modelling, it’s easy to see how everything is a model, from our thoughts to our languages to more conceptual things like scientific models and theories and math; they’re all conceptual models the brain creates in order to make sense of the world. Is our voice, our consciousness, signal strength of a model in an otherwise noisy world?

          “Your brain also clearly knows how to tell identities apart and in fact is so good at this it can only be an adaptively evolved function.”

          Again, I have said as much myself. No where do I indicate that any of this isn’t evolved, in fact I make a rather strong point that everything *is*, from the beginning of the cosmos all the way up till these messages on your blog. I’m not injecting anything spooky into this, either, just trying to make a point about consciousness; everybody has very lofty ideas of what it is, however I don’t see anything about it which *isn’t* explained by evolution, or anything which *isn’t* a lot simpler than we make it. (Ie. lots of simple reasoning functionality put together can make a complex and more sophisticated reasoning model, however we shouldn’t think that there’s more to that brain than what those simple reasoning could make. And we find those simple reasoning functionality all over nature, not just in humans)

          Again, I *think* we are in agreement, but perhaps I haven’t been clear enough?

        4. Alex:

          And so the question is; what is that consciousness that is left when the noisebox is gone, that voice in your head?

          Awareness of self or being (and all other forms of metacognition, simple and advanced) do not require an inner voice. Thinking in words is just one thing consciousness can do. It is not what consciousness is.

          For example, I can silence my thoughts and still know I am upstairs and have two arms and am hungry and have a wife who will be home soon. I do not have to think any of those things in words to know them. Putting them in words is just a way to code information for a certain kind of processing. It is not necessary to code things in words to be aware of them. Likewise, I can recall memories about myself, and memories about my wife, in which no speaking occurs and no words are thought, yet I still am aware of those memories and I still know which memories are about me and which about my wife. I can work out in my head a complete visual and tactile model of the path from where I am now to the kitchen, and imagine myself walking that route, all without ever once thinking a word-encoded thought.

          Thus consciousness is not word-encoded thought.

          Beyond that, I suppose we are in agreement.

    2. mikmik June 7, 2012, 7:20 pm

      Btw, I’ve practised meditation for years, so I too know what’s in there. I know you are conscious, sometimes even more so, but by not “thinking” you sense other senses much more. So the question becomes; what if your thinking conscious self is just an internal noisebox? It could be mistaken identity.

      Richard, I see you’ve addressed this but I want to quickly add the answers I always use about this type of ‘knowledge’ experienced in a meditative state. First, it is an altered state of consciousness, not a ‘purer’ or ‘enhanced’ state of consciousness. Calling it anything else is a completely subjective interpretation of thoughts and sensations, or lack there of. I can’t say with certainty since I doubt I’ve come close to these states by meditating, but I have had experiences where I seem to be all sorts of things like meditation, and connected to everything, or clean, clear, disconnected from self, etc. Sometimes it has been drug induced, and some have claimed great insight has been gained through their experiences these ways. It is an altered state of consciousness, and there is no reason for me to that it is just another trick the mind plays on itself because, as I said, it’s a subjective recounting.

      The other point I make, to many, many claims that our consciousness is just emergent, illusion, even hardly used, is that “why do we (almost)always need to be awake and aware to do anything?” It is hardly trivial, and in fact, there is no doubt. It is not extraneous to our being/functioning in any way, shape, or form, and in fact, is absolutely necessary.

      I think I see what you’re getting at, though, Alex. Being pre-occupied, daydreaming, ‘listening’ to some tune that persists to the point of insanity, lol, and etc. I believe this is partially explained by the way in which we multi-task, and in reality, we can only focus on one thing in any moment, yet we need to be tracking and shifting momentary focus among several considerations from second to second (or however long). (I’m sorry, but I just read this recently, yet I can’t remember the link to it, but it was neuro-psychiatric findings, in any event.)

      Our minds are always generating thoughts and ideas, for where would we get our new insights and creative solutions to problems we are facing if this wasn’t happening? The more we think (in general), the more adaptive we are to situations by coming up with new and/or novel ideas. We are extremely creative for a reason.

      Our minds then, it would seem, have two purposes at almost all times, one purely functional and objectively focused in the immediate, and another for the purpose to confer adaptability to immediate or future situations.

      At least I think I’m on the right track, here. 😉

  25. jimmy60 June 5, 2012, 9:42 am

    Does anyone know where I can find the Christian answers to these questions? Please don’t say the Bible. I’d hope they have answers longer than one word.

    1. ZeroKaiser June 7, 2012, 2:50 pm

      At the risk of making a generalization, “the bible” is not a valid answer anyway, since most Christians have not bothered to read it.

      I’m new here so I apologize if it’s not cool to post links like this, but I suggest looking here : http://www.cracked.com/article_18757_5-things-you-wont-believe-arent-in-bible.html
      It’s a good read, if only as recreational reading. My point is that most of modern Christianity is a function of popular culture, not biblical teaching.

      1. I just checked out that Cracked page ZeroKaiser recommended (Five Things You Won’t Believe Aren’t in the Bible). He’s right. It’s pretty damn funny. And not badly researched, too.

        Ditto for Six Things from History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly. That one was just awesome. (Except this one’s a bit wrong on the Big Bang.) See also Five Fictional Stories You Were Taught in History Class and Six Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True). (All four articles have different authors.)

    2. mikmik June 7, 2012, 7:32 pm

      Here is an apologetics website, The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. It is a very, very, VERY interesting site, and I believe these, and many other questions atheists can’t answer, tremble in fear, etc. are covered.

      Man, that site is a doozy, but very professionally and thoroughly done. Check out some of the ‘cut and paste’ sections. It is full of talking points, some of the better ones anyway(I am, of course, being very generous!), that keep getting recycled ad nauseum.

      Yeah, check out evidence and answers, as well.

  26. Schopenhauer June 5, 2012, 10:30 am

    Thank you very much for your reply.

    You write:

    “But you are right, Craig has acknowledged that B-Theory defeats the Kalam cosmological argument, because it allows a brute fact rebuttal to its two key premises (that an actual infinite series cannot exist and that what exists must have had a beginning).”

    Craig writes:

    “If time is tenseless, then the universe never really comes into being, and therefore the quest for a cause of its coming into being is misconceived.”

    – Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology

    I understand Craig as saying that the B-Theory of Time defeats his Kalam-Argument because on the B-Theory the universe simply is and its beginning is not a tensed fact and therefor does not need a cause.

    He then goes on to say that The Leibnitzean Version of the Cosmological Argument “Why is there (tenselessly) something rather than nothing? should still rightly be asked”


    So i dont think that even Dr. Craig thinks that on the B-Theory of time the Universe needs a cause but rather still an explanation for its existence.

    1. That conflates two different notions of “cause.”

      When Craig says “its beginning is not a tensed fact and therefore does not need a cause” he is only referring to a cause temporally prior to the tenseless fact of existence (and obviously that is then a meaningless question, since that is like asking for what’s north of the north pole, so he concedes the point).

      Craig is not referring, however, to answering a question like “Why did the first point of spacetime tenselessly inflate into a Big Bang rather than remain a tenseless dimensionless point?” That’s a different question, it’s a question about the structure of the tenseless fact of existence (why does it have a Big Bang at one end of it, and why does that Big Bang start at a singularity or something near to a singularity).

      An analogy would be looking at a comic strip. Which is objectively tenseless (all past and future exists simultaneously). We still need to explain why the second cell’s contents follow the first cell’s contents (rather than something else following, or the second and all subsequent cells being empty). In other words, there is still a question to answer, “What caused the Big Bang?”

      Now, that answer might be “Nothing, it just randomly happened,” but that is still an answer (and is distinct from “it was the only thing that logically could” or “the first point of spacetime had properties x, y, and z that inevitably had that consequence” or “there is a past eternal sequence of universes that end, by the inevitable physics in each, in a new Big Bang, and ours is one of those,” and so on and so forth).

      In other words, B-Theory does not eliminate cosmology as a science.

      And then on top of that, as you note, there is still the Leibnizean question: why that tenseless fact and not something else (or nothing at all)?

  27. gingerbaker June 5, 2012, 2:29 pm

    Some of these topics are wonderful fodder for the development of science fiction/horror story lines.

    Things supernatural, for example, may be thought of as things not subject to, or outside of, natural laws. We presume natural laws to be consistent throughout our universe. Let’s assume they are. Is it possible that what we (supposedly) perceive as supernatural events are temporary interactions with an abutting universe, which has its own set of natural laws, some of which are different than our own?

    God, an extremely highly-developed technologist, came from a different universe than our own and can remain outside of it, or can pop by every so often, as he wishes for his own amusement. He has imbued humans with a soul, some sort of highly-technical preprogrammed organic inheritable algorithm which enhances consciousness, receives occasional twitters from God, and, at the moment of somatic death of the host, is copied and transduced through the quantum foam out of our universe, and into another one as a stable self-arranging conscious plasma of some sort which works as an entity over there quite routinely.

    Explains God, souls, ghosts with just a wafer-thin coating of sciencey goodness. Great fun, and helps one to understand why theologians always use such amorphous terminology.

  28. Steerpike June 5, 2012, 2:46 pm

    Richard, if you really think you answered all those questions, you are suffering from delusions.

    Perfect example of the mindset we are up against. You spent over 5,000 words, and hours of your time addressing these infantile “stumpers” (not counting the books you have written, other blog posts, speeches, debates, conversations…). It is obvious you have put a lot of careful thought into the matter, and you made the effort to address the questions with way-hay-hay more patience and consideration than they merited. It doesn’t matter. You didn’t: (a) refuse to answer; (b) admit that the questions could not be answered; or (c) fall on your knees in tearful prayer and beg for forgiveness. Therefore you cannot, by definition, have answered, because the questions, by definition, unanswerable. Therefore checkmate. Therefore Jesus. Therefore shut up. I said GOOD DAY SIR.

  29. Otis Graf June 5, 2012, 5:40 pm


    Thanks for your response and the references. I’ll try to get a copy of “The End” and read your chapter.

    In the meantime, I think that you misunderstood my question. The issue is not how humans acquired the abilities that you describe: “some really useful languages, tools and procedures, like logic and mathematics and then, e.g., telescopes and microscopes.” Evolutionary epistemology is able to give a plausible explanation for that.

    However, if all those things were concocted by humans so as to gain an understanding of nature and we call that science, then what we have is nothing more than cultural practices and preferences. Do you really believe that logic and mathematics are just human inventions?

    It appears that what you have briefly described is the view of the “instrumentalists,” who believe that theories only provide a way to predict what their instruments will register but explain little about an underlying reality. For these folks, there is no concern about whether or not the theories actually converge on a true picture of reality.

    On the other hand, the “scientific realists” believe that their theories give direct insight into the nature of reality. Most physical scientists would describe themselves as being in the “realist” camp.

    The concern, then, is: How do we know that our theories are converging on reality given that our intelligence lies on a continuum that is not far removed from the apes?

    How is it that humans can produce abstract theories (such as those in theoretical physics, etc.) that progressively converge on the true reality of the cosmos (such as the multiverse)? String theory, the multiverse, and cosmic origins are not observable or testable in the conventional sense. Scientists are forced to rely on abstract arguments (and critique and criticism) in order to have confidence on what their theories say about reality. But given our evolutionary history, at some point this will no longer work. We will have gone off into the weeds of ignorance and will not even know it.

    This is the concern that I attempted to put in my original comment. It is difficult for me to understand how undirected contingent evolutionary processes could produce human intellect that just happens (at this point in evolutionary history) to be able to uncover the true secrets of the universe at the largest and smallest scales, and back to the beginning and to the end of time (as cosmologists claim). In attempting to answer this issue, I perceive that some naturalists inject a progressive type of teleology into evolution that just does not belong.

    This has nothing to do with the technological contraptions that humans are able to produce (i.e. microscopes and telescopes) that are useful in doing science. This has everything to do with the claim that science uncovers the true nature of reality, which is what you are doing in several of your answers to the 20 questions. It appears to me that you are encumbered with evolutionary epistemology, and that view cannot be consistent with scientific realism. But yet in the content of your answers you seem to be assuming realism.

    Perhaps you have already responded to these issues in the references you cited. I will have a look.

    Otis Graf

    1. Otis Graf:

      If all those things were concocted by humans so as to gain an understanding of nature and we call that science, then what we have is nothing more than cultural practices and preferences.

      This is a hypothesis. You just have to test it against the alternative. When you look into a microscope and see an amoeba, is that a cultural construct or something really happening? Is the amoeba a figment of your imagination? (Or, indeed, the imagination of the inventor of the microscope?) Or is there an actual light-reflecting, moving thing there, on the slide? And so on.

      Take this analysis all the way through and you’ll realize it makes no sense to claim it’s at all likely that we are not seeing small things with microscopes, but are merely culturally fabricating them. And this same analysis follows across the board, all the way to particle accelerators (which are in effect very elaborate microscopes), and anything else we use to extend our evolved abilities.

      Evolution explains why we have eyes that don’t (usually) invent things but that reliably (but not perfectly) detect light bouncing off (or emitted from) objects outside of us. Evolution explains why we have hands and brains capable of figuring out how to build a microscope. Put those two together and you get microscopes that reliably (but not perfectly) detect light bouncing off (or emitted from) objects outside of us that evolution did not (otherwise) give us the ability to see. Likewise in every other case (e.g. particle accelerators and their eventual ability to test superstring theory).

      Scientific realism is not at all challenged by this.

      Do you really believe that logic and mathematics are just human inventions?

      Are logic and mathematics human inventions? Yes. Are they “just” human inventions? Are agriculture and medicine “just” human inventions? However you answer the latter, the same answer follows for the former.

      Logic and mathematics did not exist before we invented them. Just like agriculture and medicine did not exist before we invented them. But like agriculture and medicine, logic and mathematics are not arbitrary constructs (like fiction), but tools (procedures) that are tested against reality and developed and refined in response to their success.

      Mathematics, for example, is a language describing quantities. Thus, in every universe where quantities exist, mathematics can be invented to describe it. Once you have a language that correctly describes something, you can model that something using the language (e.g. an architect can use mathematics to draw up plans for a building that will keep people warm inside and successfully bear its own weight, before even laying a single stone). Thus, quantities aren’t human inventions. The fact that a stone with a cross-sectional area of [A] won’t bear the weight of stone equal to a volume [B] is a physical fact independent of all human knowledge or imagination. Mathematics, however, is a human invention that allows us to know that fact. And so on down the line, for all knowledge involving quantities. Logic is the same, only more broad: it is a language for describing distinctions and relations, which we can use to model (and thereby understand) almost anything.

      For more on this read:

      Our Mathematical Universe
      Defining Naturalism (search to the word “Platonism”)
      Defining Naturalism II (search to the word “nominalism”)
      Critique of the Argument from Reason [in particular: What Are Logical Laws, Human Apprehension of Logical Laws, Causal Efficacy of Logical Thought, Nature of Logic, Ontology of Logic, Natural vs. Learned Reason, and the Logic of Science]

    2. mikmik June 7, 2012, 7:52 pm

      cultural practices and preferences

      I don’t understand how anyone could ever say that our world view is completely arbitrary like this! Those are adaptations to our observations and objective understanding, not the basis for them!

      We see the universe the way we do because that is the way it is, we function/exist because we, as material entities, are constrained to the very rules that allow/demand everything else’s behavior. We have to understand how things work, exactly, or we couldn’t ‘be’, in the first place, nor survive.

      If you mean how we see time and QM paradoxes, our ‘practices and preferences’ are hardly a matter of choice! We evolved with so-called practices and preferences because if they were any different, we would be in violation of local laws of physics/reality. Local reality is all we know, and therefore, all we have developed to understand. I will always argue that the way we see things, is the way they are – at least at our level or size i.e. macroscopic and microscopic, as we define it

      1. MikMik:

        We see the universe the way we do because that is the way it is

        Just to clarify, that’s not strictly true. The color red, for example, does not exist outside the information processing of our brain. There are only colorless photons of different spacetime shapes. Thus there is a sense in which the world is not the way we see it.

        And that does raise the valid question of how we came to know that. But the answer is that we evolved to model environments, and are very good at it. And when we do that with enough information, we discover that colors aren’t in the room. They are in our brain.

        It’s the same way we discover, by thinking about it, that a hiding child is not inside a nut but more likely to be behind a tree. Or that dreams are things inside our head and not actual journeys to a parallel universe. And so on.

  30. Tony June 6, 2012, 3:13 pm

    nick @4:

    11. If god created the universe out of nothing but his own power, why did he need a rib to create Eve? Seriously, did he reach a limit or something?

    Come on, give God a break. He’d just created the universe in 6 days. He was resting on the seventh to regain his strength. It’s easy to see that he hadn’t recharged when he decided to create Eve (just ignore the fact that he created Adam already). It’s not like he’s omnipotent.

  31. Tony June 6, 2012, 3:23 pm

    gingerbaker @30:

    Your ideas (really intriguing ones, may I add) remind me of Warren Ellis. Much of what he’s written touches upon ‘science meets the supernatural’, in ways eerily similar to what you wrote.

    1. No, he vehemently argues against B-Theory.

      Craig knows B-Theory kills his entire religion (it refutes the whole of Evangelical Christianity–not least because it eliminates the kind of free will Evangelical theology requires). Thus he has written whole books on just that (one whole book attacking B-Theory, one whole book defending A-Theory, and a more recent anthology drudging up the most extreme fringes of the physics community in his support).

  32. Abelard Dunin Smith June 7, 2012, 11:53 am

    “fallacy of loaded question”?! Now that’s the words of a “world renouned philosopher” right there. Did you even pass an intro to logic course? Because if you did you would understand that THAT IS NOT A REAL FALLACY. The same goes for your “fallacy of meaningless question”. It is not a real fallacy. Go read an intro to logic book. Anyone who has passed their logic 101 class knows that if something is to be a fallacy it needs to be because it involves MAKING A BAD INFERENCE. Questions are not inferences!!!! So stop making up bullshit so you can continue to falate your own ego and start trying to do serious work. Right now all you are is a mere philosophunculist.

    This is not how to be a real atheist intellectual. Go take a lesson from Rowe, or Draper, or Parfit.

    1. “Loaded question” certainly is a real fallacy. Did you not follow the link? (If you are too lazy to go back up to the article to follow the original link: here.)

      The fallacy of loaded question is often called the “fallacy of the complex question” or the “fallacy of many questions” — read the Britannica entry and the entry in Fallacy Files and this Intro to Logic Page and this California State University page which explains why you are an idiot:

      A complex question qualifies as an argument – and therefore as a fallacious argument – only because some conclusion is drawn from the opponent’s inability to answer the question.

  33. ZeroKaiser June 7, 2012, 2:23 pm

    I’m sure I’m wasting my time, posting this after 50+ comments, but I feel it is my duty to issue this warning. If you haven’t seen the original list, then you haven’t even begun to understand just how shameful this guys actions are. I’m going to say this now: do not, do not, DO NOT go to this guys blog and post a comment! Whatever else this tool bag may be, he is a talented troll.

    I could go on and on about this douche, but he’s wasted enough of my life already so I refuse to elaborate too much. This guy is the living embodiment of conformation bias, he literally refuses to perceive anything he doesn’t like. I had to tell him three times that I’m not an Atheist before he stopped demanding “atheist counterarguments” from me! He will not answer you, he’ll only mutter the same thing over and over. It’s basically “debate me, debate me so I can feel vindicated” with a healthy dose of accusing everybody in the world of relying on ad hominem attacks. I swear, he repeats “ad hominem” like he’s Harry Potter fighting off dementors. Everybody who doesn’t slobber on his junk is just not brave and clever enough to recognize him as the second coming of Jesus. And the worst part, he shows utter disrespect for any belief system but his own, makes inflammatory accusations and blatantly false claims, and he does this all with a transparent attempt at feigning civility. No, being the biggest douche in the world while refraining from using naughty words does not make you the bigger man.

    He’s a medical doctor and he doesn’t even understand that the Theory of Evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life, only how it changes! The basis for his entire profession, and he doesn’t even know what it does and does not say! But this is coming from the guy who cannot understand that he is demanding scientific answers from “atheists”, a man who will not acknowledge there are non-atheists in the scientific community and Atheists who do not pay science any more mind than he does. “God of the gaps” arguments are no more effective when you fail to address the correct group.

    Look, I’m neither Atheist nor Christian, nor anything else for that matter (unless there’s a label for people who refuses to conform with labels). I commented with a few of this guys more glaring faults for no reason but because I take issue with anyone who embarrasses an otherwise perfectly respectable religion, and all he managed to do was demonstrate to me that the single best reason to reject Christianity is to avoid the shame of willingly associating with him. I have said it before and I will say it again, if ever the church does fall and reason reigns supreme, it will not be because of the actions of Atheists.

    Whether he realizes what he is or not, this guy WILL troll you. You have been warned.

  34. afzal June 8, 2012, 9:54 am

    “an event and process that completely eluded all divine Christian revelation for two thousand years, as well as all divine Muslim and Jewish revelation throughout the whole of their existence).”

    Muslims promote the writings of maurice bucaille (bible, koran, science, ‘haluk nurbaki – the verses of the glorious koran and the facts of science’ which, inter alia,

    ‘He who has produced for you fire out of the green tree’ -green tree..i.e. oxygen.

    and this gem:

    ‘do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were one piece, and we clove them asunder (big bang?); and we made from water every living thing’..

    so not completely eluded…I guess.

    1. Indeed. Why they think the Big Bang theory holds that “heavens and earth were combined and then cleaved in two” or that biology says life is made out of water, is anybody’s guess. The latter at least could be interpreted as saying life originated in water, but Greek scientists had already guessed that centuries before Mohammed was born. And they didn’t need a God to tell them. So 1-0 to pagans on that one.

      For those who find these things amusing, you can check out my old essays on it from way back:

      Cosmology and the Koran
      The Koran Predicted the Speed of Light?
      Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed

  35. tom June 9, 2012, 12:21 am

    Great post, this is very clear and informative.

    “…the probability that a conscious entity will observe itself in a fine-tuned universe if there is no god is 100%; but that probability is not 100% if there is a god, because a god could make a far more habitable universe (I demonstrate this point extensively in my chapter in The End of Christianity cited above, so read that before challenging it here)”

    I don’t own that book yet so I haven’t had a chance to read the longer exposition you give there. But anyway, I’m looking for clarification, and not a defense.

    I’ve read this sentence over and over and can’t figure out how to parse it. I considered a few different interpretations, but none of them are making sense to me. Could you unpack that thought, a bit?


    1. I already do. I quote the End of Christianity in the article above.

      The only part I don’t quote are all the examples I give there of “more habitable” universes (beginning with the one imagined by Aristotle, in which every cubic inch of the universe is habitable and inhabited). But your imagination should suffice to produce countless other examples of “more habitable” universes, i.e. worlds actually designed for life. Which will be unlike this universe in every single respect I outline in the paragraph I do quote.

      Since (as I also explain in the cited chapter) we cannot predict from “God did it” that he would with 100% certainty create a universe that is almost entirely lethal to life and looks exactly like a universe a God didn’t make, the probability that we would see this universe if “God did it” is less than 100%. Quite a lot less. Because that in fact is very improbable on “God did it.” From the theory that “God did it” we would sooner predict (and therefore it is more probable by far) a universe universally friendly to life, exactly as every theologian predicted for thousands of years, until science proved them incredibly, mind-bogglingly wrong.

      Conversely, if God didn’t do it, we could not ever find ourselves in any universe except one like this one (except to an extremely low probability), which makes this (effectively) 100% predictable from the theory that there is no God. These two probabilities entail a low probability that God did it, according to Bayes’ Theorem, unless we assign a high prior probability to “God did it,” which in that same chapter I demonstrate we cannot do. I there argue for a maximum possible prior for God of .25 (25%), and that’s being absurdly generous (for the reasons I explain there), and the maximum possible probability that God would make the universe exactly like a Godless universe that is 99.99999% lethal to life I argue is 50%, i.e. 50/50 (which, again, is being absurdly generous, for the reasons I explain there). These numbers then entail:

      P(God|e) = [P(God) x P(e|God)] / [[P(God) x P(e|God)] + [P(~God) x P(e|~God)]] = [.25 x .5] / [[.25 x .5] + [.75 x 1]] = .125 / [.125 + .75] = .125 / .875 = .143 (rounded)

      So, the maximum probability that God exists on fine tuning is less than 15% (less than 1 in 6 odds). The real odds are vastly less, but that’s the maximum conceivable. Fine tuning therefore greatly reduces the probability that God exists. It does not at all increase it.

      All objections to this line of reasoning are dealt with in detail in the chapter. Hence you must read it before criticizing this conclusion.

    2. tom June 11, 2012, 6:04 pm

      Thanks for the reply. I did read and understand the passage from The End of Christianity quoted in your original post, and the content of your reply seems straightforward (though I’m taking the probability calculus on faith).

      What had me confused is your use of “a fine-tuned universe” to indicate “a universe extraordinarily inhospitable to life”, in this passage:

      “…the probability that a conscious entity will observe itself in a fine-tuned universe if there is no god is 100%; but that probability is not 100% if there is a god…”

      I don’t see how those terms are even roughly equivalent in meaning. That is, couldn’t a hypothetical “highly habitable” universe also be fined-tuned, in that it is able to exist and support life due to a set of physical constants being in the appropriate, very narrow range?

      There may be a use of the term “fine-tuned” in the literature that I’m just unfamiliar with, or a counterargument that escapes me. In any case, I’m now clear on the meaning of the original passage.

      1. Tom:

        Couldn’t a hypothetical “highly habitable” universe also be fined-tuned, in that it is able to exist and support life due to a set of physical constants being in the appropriate, very narrow range?

        To be honest, it’s doubtful…without intelligent design (hereafter, ID). Which means there are two different ways to take your question, and I don’t know which you mean, so I’ll answer both.

        (1) Without ID:

        Apart from computer simulations (a la The Matrix or Vanilla Sky), which are extraverse dependent (and thus will not really avoid the problem of what the external universe will look like), it may well be wholly impossible to “tune” a physical universe to have high habitability. Just think about what that would require. For instance, one wholly-habitable universe is one that is entirely filled with breathable air and floating lands and navigable by airship. What arrangement of physical constants would produce such a universe without intelligent design? That is, is there any arrangement of settings on the “constants” dials that would pop such a universe into existence, without any subsequent tinkering or engineering? I doubt even cosmological scientists can imagine such an arrangement of constants that would do that. I certainly can’t.

        At the very least, we can say with certainty that such arrangements of constants must necessarily be vastly rarer than arrangements that produce low-habitable universes (e.g. some Boltzmann universes could presumably be high-habitable, which I discuss in The God Impossible). Indeed “vastly” does not even capture the mathematical differential I’m talking about here. But let’s be absurd and say that for every such universe, there are a million universes that look more like ours (i.e. a million ways to set the dials that will give us a universe like ours, to every one way of setting the dials that will give us one of those amazingly convenient airship universes or equivalent). Then the probability, without intelligent design (i.e. by random selection of constants), that we will observe ourselves in a universe like ours will be 99.9999% and the probability we would find ourselves in one of those amazing universes is 0.0001%. Thus we might as well say the probability that we will observe ourselves in a universe like ours is 100% (as it’s near enough). This is the more so as the ratio is not a million to one, but unimaginably larger, thus the probability of finding ourselves in a universe like ours is vastly nearer 100% than even that.

        (2) With ID:

        If God exists and can make any logically possible universe he wants, he could certainly make universes like the amazing airship verse I just described (and infinitely many other possibilities, I give some examples in the chapter). In fact, those are the kinds of universes we would expect a God to make (which means, those are more probably what we would see–which entails our kind of universe is improbable on the god hypothesis).

        But God would not have to finely tune anything, i.e. the constants that govern that universe can be such that they could vary widely and still sustain that universe, and there would need be but few of them (really only two, an attractive force and a repulsive force). But neither would he even need to tune them, at all. God could just make things fall or repel however he wants wherever he wants whenever he wants, so that there could be high gravity regions and low gravity regions and regions where things stick together easily and regions where they break apart easily, and change one from the other whenever he pleases, and so on. If he wanted. And if he didn’t, he could still just set things any one way and leave it at that.

        For example, Christian theology holds that when God raises us from the dead we will have bodies that are indestructible. They can’t be crushed, injured, pulled apart, starved, asphyxiated, or anything. That is indeed logically possible. But notice: such a body can live in any universe whatever. Thus, no fine tuning would be needed. God could literally let us inhabit any universe at all. Because our bodies would be well suited to any. The only ones you might rule out would be boring universes (and that would be purely an aesthetic concern, not one of habitability; he could even design us so that we never get bored, that that emotion does not exist in us, and thus no universe could even in principle be boring) and universes with too little space to do anything with (like a collapsed shell of a universe, where there would be nowhere to move; although again, God could just design us so that we enjoy that state of affairs). But even if we rule out those universes, most conceivable universes by far are neither. And in fact, God could make a multiverse where we can explore all possible universes (or all the ones God deems morally acceptable) and thus decide which one we prefer to live in, exercising that free will Christians think is so bloody important.

        Thus, God has no need of fine tuning. Therefore we have no reason to expect it (if God made a universe). Only godless universes have to be finely tuned, for us to ever find ourselves in one. This is true even of amazing universes (like that airship verse). Indeed, without a god, those universes would have to be even more mind bogglingly finely tuned than ours is (if such universes are even possible without intelligent design, and as I noted, I suspect they are not).

  36. afzal June 9, 2012, 4:19 am

    Those essays of yours on Islam deserve to be known better. If ever you come to write ‘the Islam Delusion’ – do give us a shout.

    The qur’an – a book which allows child marriage and concubinage since it is God who is the definer of what good is, and what bad is: Allaahu a’lamu wa antum laa ta’lamuun – God knows and you do not’. Muhammad and his time is the acme of human civilisation after which everything deteriorates and degrades.

    It demands abdication of reason in submission to your Maker’s will…little wonder Muslims are desperate for gratification:

    ” The Day that We roll up the heavens like a scroll rolled up for books (completed),- even as We produced the first creation, so shall We produce a new one: a promise We have undertaken: truly shall We fulfill it. (Quran, 21:104)

    …The simplest version of the inflationary theory, an extension of the Big Bang theory, predicts that the density of the universe is very close to the critical density, and that the geometry of the universe is flat, like a sheet of paper. That is the result confirmed by the WMAP science.” (http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_shape.html)

    They have discovered only 8 years ago; that the Universe is flat! The best way the NASA scientists could describe the Universe is “like a sheet of paper,” which Allah Almighty has already described 1,400 years ago to a goat herder and illiterate Bedouin and Shepard, our beloved and blessed Prophet Muhammad, Peace, Mercy and Blessings be upon him. Amen.”

    1. That’s funny. Because cosmological “flatness” (= not curved) has nothing to do with sheet-of-paper “flatness” (= thin in one spatial dimension). Muslim fundamentalists obviously don’t even understand the science they claim the Koran predicted. Indeed, this refutes there very thesis. They think cosmological flatness means the universe is “thin in one spatial dimension” because the Koran says it is, thus proving the Koran is not only getting the science wrong, its doing so is de-educating Muslims and hamstringing their science education and thus their economic competitiveness worldwide. Islam truly is dragging half the world down.

  37. Galactor June 9, 2012, 4:49 am

    This gentleman doesn’t seem to realise that his questions and particularly his understanding that they are problematic are being trashed.

    He acknowledges the thoroughness of Carrier’s responses but doesn’t seem to want to address just how damning they are to his position.

  38. Keith June 9, 2012, 1:32 pm

    LOL come on already. There are many questions WE DO NOT KNOW answers to. God did it is illogical. God is a claim still at this point so I find it hard to even fathom when I see such questions as these. The God of the gaps argument is deadly and regressive IMO. I hate these often repeated and loaded questions.

    One side likes evidence the other likes faith.

    The Bible and all the major holy books of the Abrahamic religions are full of holes and are actually wrong on many issues.

    1. For those who don’t have time to listen to the video lecture, Krugman’s theory is that it is tantamount to a universal law that trade inevitably produces centralization, which catalyzes urbanization. (And that the geographic spread of cities can be predicted based on a function of transport time and rural density.)

      Sellers tend to prefer centralized locations because it increases efficiency of sales and acquisitions, and buyers tend to prefer centralized locations because it increases variety of options, lowers prices from competition, and increases efficiency of consumption (e.g. you can do all your shopping in one place at the same time), this drive toward centralization then results in huge gains in efficiency from economies of scale (central-hubbing lowers transportation costs, concentrates labor and resources, and facilitates division of labor, e.g. a bookmaker can shop for finished components from other artisans who specialize each in their own components, and the bookmaker can then specialize in the assembly and sale of a finished product, which increases quality of product and speed of production), which then makes centralization even more attractive (becoming a feedback loop). These centers then need to be policed and defended (requiring walls, armies and governments of increasing sophistication) and sustained (requiring advanced water and food supply networks, sewage systems, garbage collection, etc.) and inhabitants then want to be entertained, serviced, and cultured (leading to amenities such as theaters, bath houses, libraries, temples). In other words, eventually, inevitably, you just end up with a city. This only tends not to happen in regions of extreme resource scarcity (the Kalahari; the Gobi) or high urbanization cost (the Amazon; the Himalayas).

      Krugman’s theory also aims to explain why certain regions come to specialize in certain products (and why the most successful regions are the ones that do not concentrate in a few specializations but trade products in similar industries to each other), and how national and urban economies each affect each other, and how globalization and urbanization affect each other, but those are different issues from why and how cities arose in the first place.

    2. blotonthelandscape June 11, 2012, 11:47 pm

      I meant to say, you can probably skip the first half of the vid (which talks about New Trade). But your description is Krugman-in-a-nutshell.

  39. mikmik June 11, 2012, 12:43 pm


    We see the universe the way we do because that is the way it is

    Just to clarify, that’s not strictly true. The color red, for example, does not exist outside the information processing of our brain. There are only colorless photons of different spacetime shapes. Thus there is a sense in which the world is not the way we see it.

    I do agree with you. I’m of the school that our subjective reality is entirely separate from ‘everything outside’ of our head, and there is only a ‘bridge’ between the two via sensory input.

    However, I must ask, is there a proper way, or real way, of perceiving nature? For instance, let’s take the color red. It is comprised of photons of ~ 600nm wavelength with a certain amplitude. Using detectors, they may react to absorbing this energy in a certain way, but they don’t really tell what the polarization is. As far as the detector is concerned, the photon is a particle, for it only can absorb the energy by having electrons dislodged, or various other ways, like bonds in molecules deforming.

    In fact, there are only interactions, or relationships, between matter and energy, and there isn’t really a physical thing being ‘perceived’ but by this relationship that has certain properties.

    Our brain/ consciousness, has a direct relationship with photons via a cascade of relationships, with the end result being a detector reading that measures the wavelength and amplitude of the photons, resulting in a hue and brightness, which we don’t know what that is, really.

    In light of this, lol, can it really be discounted that we also are subject to the same physical interactions, like gravity, spacial dimension(collision), and electromagnetic force? Of course not, but my point is that our ‘simulation’ of what radiation in the visible spectrum looks like, is a precise response based on particle interactions through molecular size, and our motion is subject to the same forces, spatially and gravitationally, as all macroscopic matter.

    We, in fact, are able to integrate a much wider spectrum(lol) of relationships and react to a greater precision to our surroundings than inanimate matter.

    We owe our existence and survival as entities to ‘viewing’ nature in order to navigate it to great precision, like getting out of the way of cars in traffic, etc.

    So, on the one hand, yes, our qualia and thoughts are ‘readouts’ from our detectors/relationships with matter and energy are artificial. On the other, is there really a ‘real view’ of reality? Is there such a thing as “the way that it is?”

    If you can even point me to relevant reading on this type of thing, I’d be grateful, for I usually think of stuff and then find out it has already been done by Aristotle or Russell. (You get the point!)

    Thanks, Mike L

    1. MikMik:

      So, on the one hand, yes, our qualia and thoughts are ‘readouts’ from our detectors/relationships with matter and energy are artificial. On the other, is there really a ‘real view’ of reality? Is there such a thing as “the way that it is?”

      This is a question regarding which of two hypotheses is most likely true, given all the information available to us so far: H1 = “There is a ‘way that it is'” vs. H2 = “There is no ‘way that it is’.” H2 has little explanatory value, whereas H1 explains all the information we have. That renders H1 far more probable.

      Of course, that’s not the same thing as concluding we know ‘the way that it is’. We know, rather, that there is a lot yet to discover about that. But we still know (i.e. have a belief that is very probably true) that there is something to discover.

      But as to the first point (H1 being more likely than H2) that is pretty much the point of contention between me and Michael Rea (who argues atheists cannot consistently maintain H1, only theists can; an absurd argument, but showing why he is wrong explains a lot about why H1 is credible) in my Defending Naturalism as a Worldview.

      (BTW, as to ‘the way that it is’, there is a secondary question whether ‘the way that it is’ has an ultimate answer [as in Superstring theory: everything is a knot in spacetime, thus spacetime is the ultimate reality] or whether it’s an actual infinite regress, e.g. every particle is composed of smaller particles, in turn composed of smaller particles, ad infinitum, each stage being another universe of particles, most of which are just chaoses, while some may be actual ordered universes–thus, conceivably, our entire known universe is a sub-particle composing an electron in someone else’s universe. The only argument against this is that we have no evidence of this infinite regress, and finite regress [e.g. Superstring theory] is a simpler explanation of what we observe. But though it may be the only argument, it’s a pretty strong argument. So the universes-within-universes theory is an extraordinary claim, to be doubted until evidenced.)

  40. What caused the universe to exist? Question for physicists, not atheists.
    What explains the fine tuning of the universe? Question for physicists, not atheists.
    Why is the universe rational? Question for physicists, not atheists.
    How did DNA and amino acids arise? Question for chemists, not atheists.
    Where did the genetic code come from? Question for chemists, not atheists.
    How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve? Question for chemists, not atheists.
    How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families? Question for linguists, not atheists.
    Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC? Question for archaeologists, not atheists.
    How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity? Question for neurologists, not atheists.
    How do we account for self-awareness? Question for neurologists, not atheists.
    How is free will possible in a material universe? Question for neurologists/philosophers, not atheists.
    How do we account for conscience? Question for neurologists, not atheists.
    On what basis can we make moral judgements? Question for sociologists, not atheists.
    Why does suffering matter? Question for sociologists, not atheists.
    Why do human beings matter? Question for sociologists, not atheists.
    Why care about justice? Question for sociologists, not atheists.
    How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural? Question for sociologists, not atheists.
    How do we know the supernatural does not exist? Ah ha! An atheist question!!! Um, why should I think it does exist?
    How can we know if there is conscious existence after death? Question for neurologists, not atheists.
    What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church? Prove it, prove it, and Question for sociologists, not atheists.

    1. All true…except (a) the last is a question for historians, not sociologists (and some of the questions you assign to sociologists are actually multidiscplinary) and (b) scientists can also be atheists (these are not exclusive categories) and (c) though each question requires field-specific skills to answer, that is not the same thing as who needs the answers (thus, that atheists have enough sense to know they have to turn to the experts is not relevant to Saunders’ main point, which is that these questions supposedly cannot be answered without appealing to a god and therefore “atheists can’t answer them”; that we can, because scientists have, is what refutes him).

    1. FYI, in The End of Christianity (as cited in the article above) I argue the multiverse theory is not even needed. Nevertheless I do think it’s likely.

      As to Lowder’s argument, he is incorrect that we have no reason to assume P(M|N) is high.

      Technically, when he says “on naturalism alone” that conclusion might be true (since that would mean “ignoring all background evidence,” but then that would never produce a valid Bayesian conclusion–the background evidence has to be included), but even that I doubt. Because absent all background knowledge, the probability of a multiverse is actually virtually 100% on logical argument alone: hence Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit (and the corrolary argument that does not assume any beginning to existence in The End of Christianity, note 20, pp. 408-09).

      However, when we reintroduce all our background knowledge (because on a proper analysis we need to know not P(M|N) but P(M|N.b)), we get a much higher prior probability of M on N than we have for ~N alone. This is because of the vast precedents set already by scientific investigation and discovery, and the nature of the most developed multiverse theories in current cosmology.

      On present science, for example, if N, then most probably chaotic inflation (or some other M-producing TOE, like Smolin selection or Hawking inflation) is true (see Sense and Goodness without God III, pp. 71-96). That in turn entails M. Thus, if N, then probably M.

      That the prior probability of these TOEs (like chaotic inflation) is very high is established by the precedents of scientific discovery. Our background evidence establishes countless instances of (n-theory) “the cause of x is a physical state and not a god” and zero instances of (t-theory) “the cause of x is a god,” which entails an extremely high prior probability for any n-theory over any t-theory. And not only in general, but in specifics, e.g. chaotic inflation relies on premises most of which have been independently proved (e.g. a region of spacetime is governed by quantum mechanics) whereas no aspect of a god hypothesis has ever been similarly proved (we have vast evidence that QM governs spacetime; zero evidence that any gods do). Likewise, the evidence, independently of F (fine tuning), supports them over theism, e.g. chaotic inflation explains structural features of the observed universe that are not necessary to life (and thus not at all predicted by theism, in fact they are unlikely on theism, which does not make, for example, intergalactic voids, galactic superstructures, or supermassive black holes expected at all).

      All of this entails that unless P(M|N) is extremely lower than P(~M|N), P(M|N) will always be higher than P(T), where T is theism. And that’s all that matters (as far as making an M argument against T). For example, if P(~N) = P(T) [i.e. we rule out all nontheistic supernaturalisms] and P(T) is 0.0000001 (I’m just picking a low number at random), then P(N) is 0.9999999. If P(M&N) is as likely as P(~M&N), then P(M&N) = 0.49999995, which is still vastly greater than P(T). Whereas if P(M&N) is less than P(~M&N), then it has to be many millions of times less than P(~M&N) before P(T) starts to be higher than P(M&N) (in this example, more than ten million times less). We have no evidence of that.

      Thus, Lowder is wrong.

      By analogy, if outer space started glowing, the prior probability that the explanation will be “some natural physical phenomenon is occurring” will be vastly greater than the prior probability that the explanation will be “god is giving us a sign.” Likewise anything else. We would need extraordinary evidence to swing the conclusion back to “god is giving us a sign,” which means evidence that will be extremely improbable on any other theory. If we had two “some natural physical phenomenon is occurring” explanations, one complex and one simple, and the simple one did not make the evidence likely while the complex one did, the complex one would still have to be millions of times less likely than the simple one before “god is giving us a sign” became credible again.

      As for that case, so for anything else we want to explain, like the origin of the universe.

      That’s why theists need to straw man M rebuttals by claiming M (multiverse theory) posits billions of arbitrary entities and therefore is billions of times less likely than just one entity. But that is not the M argument. If M is entailed by a handful of simple facts, which collectively are far more likely than T, then M does not posit billions of arbitrary entities; rather, the billions of universes are a 100% entailed outcome of the “handful of simple facts” and therefore only a handful of simple facts are being posited arbitrarily. But of course God is also being posited arbitrarily. Therefore the question becomes: which is initially more likely, that handful of simple facts, or God? Which arbitrary posit has a higher prior? That is answered by scientific precedent (hence: background evidence). It’s thus not about how many universes there are. That’s irrelevant to determining the prior probability of M vs. T.

      (And of course this all ignores the fact that T does not actually explain the universe we find ourselves in, whereas ~T explains many bizarre features of it. Which is why P(U|N) > P(U|T), where U is the universe we actually find ourselves in [complete with property F]. But you need to read my chapter to get the rundown on why that is–the article above summarizes some of it.)

  41. John Horstman June 29, 2012, 12:22 pm

    Re: question #18, I always have to ask for a definition of “supernatural”. The one in most common use is self-negating: it doesn’t describe super-natural processes at all, just natural ones of which we are not aware (i.e. things that act upon the observed, measurable, material world – by definition, we would consider these natural, and if we can see their impacts, we can discover their natures). For things that don’t interact with the material world, I wonder what one is talking about or why it matters. By definition, if there is some process, force, etc. that doesn’t interact with the material world, we would never have any way to know about it, nor would it be particularly important to do so, as it can’t possibly have any impact on us. So the question is either entirely pointless or self-negating as a matter of redefining what I would call natural processes as ‘supernatural’ on the basis of what we haven’t discovered yet. The question presupposes that we’ve completely discovered and explained all natural phenomena, which is patently absurd. If the ‘supernatural’ is simply those natural processes we have not yet discovered or explained, then I don’t agree that it doesn’t exist; it’s just a distinction without a difference that doesn’t make a case for any god or against our established best methods of gaining knowledge.

  42. Rodney Wilkinson July 4, 2012, 8:49 am

    Dear Richard Carrier,

    I just wonder: Why are you an Atheist, and not an Ignostic?

    All the best,


    1. I assume you are referring to the technical position of Ignosticism, which is a variant of theological noncognitivism. I am an ignostic with respect to many gods, and not an ignostic with respect to many others. But I do not believe in any god (I am not a theist of any kind), I am therefore an atheist.

      See Sense and Goodness without God IV.2 (pp. 253-90), esp. the intro (pp. 253-56), the conclusion (IV.2.7.7, p. 288), and section IV.2.4 (pp. 275-77). My blog post Atheist or Agnostic might also help, but those sections in my book will fully explain (especially by addressing ignosticism as well as agnosticism and incoherentism).

  43. “It is not established that the universe began, and thus had a cause at all.

    Our universe began (at the Big Bang) but we have no way of knowing anymore what if anything preceded that event. And as for what caused our one specific universe, we already know the answer to that: the Big Bang did.”

    Mmmm… How about this?


    Although I can’t quite put my finger on the fact that they are talking about the universe as EVERYTHING that exists or only about OUR universe and its “brothers” in an hypotetical multiverse scenario.

    1. Correct. The two are often conflated by theists. One way to think of it is: did time itself begin with the Big Bang, or was there time prior to it? Once you allow prior universes, the cosmological and fine tuning arguments collapse under the weight of sequential multiverse theory.

      The thesis you link to a discussion of actually grants that time preceded the Big Bang and that there may in fact have been billions of prior universes; they only conclude that if certain laws of physics remain constant across universes, then there will have been somewhere in this chain of universes a first moment of time. However, as even the paper’s authors have pointed out, it is not a given that those laws of physics remain constant across universes, and there’s the rub for any theist: they cannot prove that those laws continued to hold. And if they didn’t, the certainty of a first time-point dissolves.

      Moreover, one of the models they tested was standard chaotic inflation, which is not only a sequential multiverse theory, but a parallel multiverse theory, i.e. the first “bang” would have generated billions of universes simultaneously, and most of those in turn will have lead to a sequence of billions more. That in fact is Vilenkin’s own solution to the cosmological problem, positing an initial random Big Bang event that spawned eternal inflation, which has a statistical probability of eventually producing a world like ours of approximately 100%.

      Thus, Vilenkin’s own past-finite model refutes all theistic cosmological and fine tuning arguments.

    2. Cool 🙂

      So, let me check if I got it right. If laws of physics remain constant across universes, even models like that of a cyclic universe should require a beginning, but since this condition is not a given we cannot be sure.

      If we assume that the above mentioned condition is satisfied, Vilekin proposes an initial event that gave birth to a huge number of universes with cyclic properties.

      (Am I right so far?)

      This doesn’t seem too different to Sean Carroll’s theory, according to wikipedia:

      “He and Jennifer Chen posit that the Big Bang is not a unique occurrence as a result of all of the matter and energy in the universe originating in a singularity at the beginning of time, but rather one of many cosmic inflation events resulting from quantum fluctuations of vacuum energy in a cold De Sitter space.”

      Now, IMHO a theist could always claim that only pushes the problem away since such space (or whatever “cosmic landscape” the quantum fluctuation originated from) must have its origin explained. To which we may well argue that we have no particular reason to think that such “lanscape” must have had a beginning at all, like the universe we live in. It may simply exist.

      True, that might be accused of begging the question. But no more that the “God has always existed and is responsible for all that exists; and He simply exists” hypothesis does. So this kind of argument doesn’t take us anywhere.

      Hope I’m not talking bullshit 😛

  44. Elle87 October 28, 2012, 5:41 pm

    As for consciousness after death, there seems to be nonetheless some literature that claims that mind-body physicalism may be inadequate to explain phenomena like near death experiences.


    I’m highly skeptical of supernatural explanations of near death and out of body experiences myself, mainly because we still know little about the tricks our mind can play ant how consciuosness may emerge from neurological activity, but I think that the skeptic argument is not conclusive in this case.

    (By the way, I’m Elle, I changed my nickname because somehow I cannot comment with the old one).

    1. On the main point: Keith Augustine has exploded attempts like those to prove NDEs have no neurophysical explanation or to argue a “creationist style” teach-the-controversy or scientists-should-stay-agnostic position. The Secular Web houses an online summary of his peer reviewed article series for the Journal of Near Death Studies. It’s a must-read.

      On the technical point: the webmaster here has instituted an authentication system to prevent forged id’s–i.e. several people were commenting as “other” people; so the ability to do that had to be blocked. The downside is that if someone registers your id before you do, then they own that id. Possibly, however, you registered that id and didn’t know it. It might be worth contacting Ed Brayton (at stcynic at gmail.com) and asking if he knows why you can’t comment as Elle anymore, whether someone else owns that id, or whether you can get it back.

  45. Elle87 February 4, 2013, 2:19 am

    “What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
    Long since asked and answered. See my chapters “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable” in The Christian Delusion (pp. 291-315) and “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible” in The End of Christianity (pp. 53-74).”

    I think “The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave” (if I’m not mistaken, you were one of the contributors, right?) and “Atheism and the Case Against Christ” by Matt McCormick are also worth mentioning.

    Finally, JFYI, yesterday Jeff Lowder has linked to what he thinks is one of the best cases against the resurrection yet presented.


  46. Mark Weber December 20, 2013, 12:48 pm

    Your link to ” a recent experiment replicating the effect of spontaneous amino acid formation in deep space environments.)” is broken.


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