A blogger named Anne Jones, who recently appeared on a Pharyngula comment thread, has posted an apologetic of considerable length on her own blog for her version of Christianity. I thought it appropriate to respond to some of her claims. I shall do so in two parts: this post is Part I, and Part II will be forthcoming shortly.
Jones describes herself as a Christian creationist, a label usually associated with those who deny that the diversity of life can be explained in evolutionary terms. However, she devotes very little of her post to attacking evolutionary theory – perhaps because she is aware that the argument is hopeless, since creationism (and its rebranded modern version, “intelligent design”) have been so comprehensively debunked by the scientific community. Instead, she presents us with an eclectic mix of apologetic arguments, some of them reasonable and others utterly confused. Most of them have little to do with the creation/evolution debate, and some are arguments I have also heard from non-creationist religious apologists. I shall turn to the first of these arguments.
An atheist friend pointed me to a book by Greta Christina just released. I actually found it quite entertaining, and had empathy for a lot of her complaints. That said, her Chapter 8 (“Evidence against God” or something like that) was utter garbage, especially when she mentioned this (and I’m going by memory here, because I don’t own the book, I only borrowed it, but I took a note of this phrase because of how memorable it was):
contrary to the rigorously-gathered, carefully-tested, thoroughly cross-checked, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, replicated, peer-reviewed research that has obeyed the Gold Standard of scientific evidence wherein methods have been used to filter out biases and cognitive errors as much as humanly possible” evidence that is gathered for evolution, creationism/ID/God claims only stands after careless, casual examination based on wishful thinking and confirmation bias
This is interesting. Because it’s exactly these forms of studies that have pointed to the incredible fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe. And it’s not merely Christians who are claiming this. Most cosmologists, Christian or otherwise, scratch their heads over this extraordinary finding in nature. The same can be said for the evidence pointing to the beginning of the universe out of non-being and other areas.
This is probably the most reasonable argument she makes, and one which is popular with religious apologists, so I shall devote some space to debunking it.
The first and most obvious objection to the “argument from fine-tuning” is that it is a tautology. Jones is committing what is sometimes termed the “puddle fallacy”, in honour of the late Douglas Adams: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” The fact that we are here, and that we would not be here if the universe were slightly different, is not evidence that the universe was designed with us in mind – any more than the hole was designed with the puddle in mind. As Greta Christina eloquently puts it:
Here’s an analogy. I just rolled a die 10 times (that’s a six-sided die, all you D&D freaks), and got the sequence 3241154645. The odds against that particular sequence coming up are astronomical. Over 60 million to one.
Does that mean that this sequence was designed to come up?
Or think of it this way. The odds against me, personally being born? They’re beyond astronomical. The chances that, of my mom’s hundreds of eggs and my dad’s hundreds of millions of sperm, this particular sperm and egg happened to combine to make me? Ridiculously unlikely. Especially when you factor in the odds against my parents being born…and against their parents being born…and their parents, and theirs, and so on and so on and so on. The chances against me, personally, having been born are so vast, it’s almost unimaginable.
But does that mean I was destined to be born?
Does that mean we need to concoct an entire philosophy and theology to explain The Improbability of Greta-ness?
Or does it simply mean that I won the cosmic lottery? Does it simply mean that my existence is one of many wildly improbable outcomes of the universe… and if it hadn’t happened, something else would have? Does it simply mean that some other kid would have been born to my parents instead… a kid whose existence would have been every bit as unlikely as mine?
Yes, the existence of humanity is unlikely. But so is my personal existence, and the existence of the Messier 87 galaxy, and the roll of a die in the sequence 3241154645. That doesn’t mean these things were designed to happen. We are a puddle that evolved to fit in a convenient hole. There is no reason to think that the hole was created for us.
The fact that an outcome, improbable in itself, has occurred does not imply that the universe has been designed to ensure that outcome. If it had not occurred, another equally improbable event would have happened instead: if our hypothetical die-roller had not rolled the sequence 3241154645, she might have rolled 3141662113 instead, or 3614234325. If the laws of the universe were different and there were no life of any kind, merely free-floating hydrogen atoms, then we would not be here to worry about it. In short, the fine-tuning argument is meaningless.
A second objection to the fine-tuning argument is that, considering what we know of our universe, it seems very strange to suggest that the universe we inhabit was designed by a Creator who specifically intended that life should come about, and who structured the laws of physics to that end. As Richard Carrier points out, if the universe is finely tuned for anything, it is for making black holes, not for life!
In fact, we could go so far as to say that the great majority of the universe is profoundly hostile to life as we know it. We, fragile beings that we are, cannot live in the vacuum of space, or in the centre of a star, or on the rim of a black hole. We cannot live on any of the extrasolar planets within our present reach. We cannot even live comfortably on much of our own small planet, prone as it is to harsh climates and to violent natural disasters. The universe does not look even slightly as if it were designed for us. If it was designed at all, the more likely conclusion is that we are an accidental byproduct.
After this unedifying discussion of cosmology, Jones jumps forward several billion years and starts talking about philosophy of mind.
Further, the mere existence of the Placebo Effect is evidence that naturalism (which you seem to profess) is wrong. The Placebo Effect could not exist in a purely naturalistic universe where all operates on cause/effect. Given that that placebo has no causative powers, there is no effect possible. And yet the one taking it believes there that powerful medicine is at work, so there is a change (and this has been seen in profound areas like Parkinsons Disease symptoms being reduced by simply believing in the sugar pill). This points to an unembodied consciousness with the ability to impact the physical body.
Jones simply seems to be confused here. The placebo effect (and its reverse, the nocebo effect) does have “causative powers”, by any meaningful definition of that phrase. It affects the brain, which is an organ like any other, and whose activity in turn affects the rest of the body. The placebo effect is a phenomenon the biological mechanisms of which can be, and have been, investigated. Research has indicated, for instance, that administration of placebos believed by patients to relieve pain can stimulate the release of endorphins. In another study, PET and fMRI scans revealed the physical effects of placebos on the brain. There is no reason to suspect any mysterious supernatural agency at work in the placebo effect: it can readily be explained more prosaically by nerve impulses and hormones.
More generally, it is hardly revolutionary to observe that the state of one’s mind can affect the state of one’s body, and it certainly does not require a supernatural explanation. Our states of mind affect our bodies all the time: we may experience an elevated heart rate when we feel nervous, for instance, and we may become physically aroused when we think about sex. All of these phenomena are readily explained by biology. None of them is evidence of Cartesian dualism. We do not need to invent an immaterial soul in order to explain the interface between the mind and the body.
I shall skip for now over Jones’ strange claims about near-death experiences, which I shall leave to Part II, to avoid this post becoming excessively lengthy. I shall move on briefly to her next grievance against Greta Christina.
Greta Christina also mentioned something about (again, just paraphrasing here) :
poor understandings/instincts of creationists/IDers/Goddists when it comes to probability, and the tendency of creationists/IDers/Goddists to see patterns and intentions where none exists, in addition to intrinsic cognitive biases and weird human brain wiring that creationists/IDers haveHere, we just have a garbled mess that’s a mixture of ad hominem (“you don’t understand probability”) and false claims (“your brains are wired wrong”). She’s likely talking about some books released about our brains being wired to believe in God, and perhaps the “God Helmet” experiments.
First, the “brain is wired” arguments have been disproven because no single area of the brain has been shown to be “the spot” for this sort of thing (I can go into more depth on this if you want to walk down that alley). And the “God Helmet” nonsense is just that…people aren’t Christians because they have an ecstatic experience. We are because we have weighed the evidence, we have reasoned logically, and we concluded that the best answer is that God exists.
Here, Jones admits that she is paraphrasing rather than quoting, and I have my doubts that she is doing so accurately. I certainly would not defend the claim that creationism is caused by some sort of brain malady! I suspect – though I cannot be sure – that what Greta Christina was actually alluding to, and what Jones has misunderstood, is the more modest claim that some kinds of religious and superstitious thinking may be explained by natural cognitive biases which all humans possess: in particular apophenia, the tendency to see patterns where there are none.
In the next paragraph Jones touches briefly on biology, although she shies away from putting forward a robust argument against evolution – and rightly so. Still, she repeats some unhelpful creationist talking points, which I shall address in Part II.