Michael Battalio

Friday, July 25, 2008

This I Believe (part 3)

This is part three of my “This I Believe” series. I’m going to be spending most of the time delving into my struggles in deciding what it is I actually believe. I have had trouble over the last several years defining exactly what it is I prescribe to as a worldview. I consider myself a man of science, but I also consider myself a man of faith. So, where am I exactly? I intend on defining what is faith, considering non-overlapping magisteria, and many other topics.

This entry into the series will focus on “The Case for a Creator” by Lee Strobel, specifically a critique of some the more ambiguous points. I will go through a list of some of the illogical points he makes, plus comment on a couple of items to his credit.

Strobel and his interviewees use apples to oranges analogies to try to affirm God's existence. For example, in Chapter 6 Robin McGrath asks you to picture this: Suppose when we first send a human to Mars we discover a biosphere constructed with an atmosphere supportive of life. Would we not immediate believe that an intelligence beyond our own created it? The answer is yes obviously, but when you change "biosphere" to "universe" and "intelligence" to "God" in that argument you create an awful logical fallacy. On Mars, it is "obvious" that nature did not create the biosphere. To call it obvious that the universe is not created via natural processes is petitio principii (begging the question). It's what we are trying to answer in the first place. If it were obvious that the universe was created artificially, as the biodome was, then the argument would be valid, but it is not obvious-that is the whole point.
I could come up with many other examples of that, but you get the point. Just be careful if you read this book. Despite Ocham's razor, question the simplest sounding of arguments; they are usually too good to be true.

Here is a more compelling argument: Strobel focuses a chapter, Chapter 5, on the Kalam Cosmological Argument. To summarize: 1.) Whatever begins to exist has a cause. 2.) The Universe began to exist. 3.) The Universe has a cause. That cause is God.
Saying that another physical process caused the Universe simply pushes the argument back a level. What caused the cause? This is an intriguing argument. I find it difficult to easily find a hole in it. (Warning: Physics mumbo jumbo) Saying that quantum fluctuations caused the Universe implies that an energy field had to exist (and something for it to exist in) before hand. What caused that? We're talking about the Universe being created from nothing, absolute nothing. Virtual particles are caused from an energy field, not exactly nothing. There are also p-branes (physicists love their whimsy) in string theory and the aforementioned multiverse. [I’ve already talked about the multiverse (see Part One of this series). P-branes and just about everything dealing with string theory are improvable, just like the multiverse, so it’s a moot point to bother with them in this discussion, but p-branes are a mathematical construct composed of multiple dimensions, any integer from zero up. The thought is that the universe is inside one of these p-branes (the p is just a variable, so that a three dimensional brane would be a 3-brane.), and these p-branes are floating around in something, and every time they collide with one another, they form a new universe. That’s really simplified, mostly because I have a hard time understanding it. If you’re interested, there’s a lot of literature on the internet.] Anyway, the point being, what caused the universe? And granted, just because we don’t have a reason now, doesn’t mean we won’t have a reason eventually.

Next, in Ch. 7, Strobel discusses with Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards evidence of God from Astronomy. The main rebuff I’d like to give is on the rare Earth hypothesis. The theory being that the Earth is so fine tuned, so perfect, so one in a quadrillion that it has to be designed. Here’s my case against that argument: just recently earth sized planets have been discovered around stars. I believe the percentage of planets with stars is about 1 in 10, or at least that is the best estimate so far. With the discovery of earth sized planets orbiting even some of the stars we can see, I can say without a bit of reservation (although there is a chance I’m wrong) that there must be another earth sized planet in the Goldilocks zone. The Goldilocks zone is just a clever way of saying that a planet is in an orbit where is temperature is just right for liquid water to continuously exist.) I also must dismiss the arguments about the rarity of having a molten iron core (the iron core creates the magnetic field around the Earth that protects us from all kinds of high energy particles that could kill life), and a moon of the right size and distance because even with a one in a trillion chance, there are billions or more chances for the exact conditions to exist more than once. I’m afraid astronomy doesn’t support the rare earth hypothesis anymore.
I must say that I don’t know enough about most of the biological evidence presented to make a determination on it one way or the other. It has convinced me I need to spend some time reading up on biology because that’s a subject in which I’m deficient. (But look at Part Two of this series for a discussion of irreducible complexity.)

The biggest problem with the book though is that despite Strobel’s claims to being unbiased, there are no religious skeptics interviewed, and almost all of those interviewed have doctorates in philosophy or theology, not science. This really needs no explanation. It’s difficult to call oneself unbiased when you have no arguments that differ from your own presented.

Confused by my logic? Leave me a comment. Next, a dissection of some of the dubious points made by each of the authors, continuing with Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”.

Friday, July 11, 2008

This I Believe (part 2)

This is part two of my “This I Believe” series. I’m going to be spending most of the time delving into my struggles in deciding what it is I actually believe. I have had trouble over the last several years defining exactly what it is I prescribe to as a worldview. I consider myself a man of science, but I also consider myself a man of faith. So, where am I exactly? I intend on defining what is faith, considering non-overlapping magisteria, and many other topics.

Next, I’m going to present a summary of evidence for and against God concerning evolution and irreducible complexity from Lee Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator” and from Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”.

Strobel interviewed several scientists, most notably biologist Michael Behe. He argues that evolution cannot explain certain systems because they are too complex to evolve naturally, and thusly must have been designed.
Having done a bit of research into Behe I have discovered his claims while though intriguing are disputed my the majority of biologists. In fact there is a considerable amount of work debunking all of Behe claims. There is even a case decided where Behe was a witness in which the court dismisses Behe’s claims. (See Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) Still though, I believe an explanation of this is in order.
Behe provides several examples of irreducible complexity; the eye, blood clotting, and flagellum. To begin his discussion he provides the example of a mousetrap. The mousetrap is irreducibly complex. Remove even just one component-the spring, wooden base, the closing bar-and it no longer works. Behe argues the same for each of his examples. I’ll describe just one. Consider a blood clot, if the clot doesn’t form over a cut, no matter how small, you’ll die. If a clot forms in the wrong place, your brain for instance, you’ll die. If a clot doesn’t completely cover a cut, you’ll die. The system is highly choreographed. According to Behe, blood clots have to follow a sequence of ten steps using 20 different components (C. for a C. pg.209). Remove just one of the components and the system falls apart. The system is useless if step six of ten fails. How did these 20 components come together to create this system?
Behe also argues against gene duplication (the accidental creation of an extra copy of a piece of DNA where the original copy performs its intended function and the extra copy can perform a new function). To revisit the mouse trap: say you have the spring but not the base. Now via duplication you have two springs, so you have two springs and no base. That’s still useless. How does the extra spring become a base?
Again, however, there is scientific evidence disproving this claim. (see http://www.pnas.org/content/100/13/7527.full) The puffer fish cited in the article has three less of the genes Behe contends are need for blood clotting. And the question follows what is the fewest amount of genes needed for the supposedly irreducibly complex system to continue to work. That’s unknown, but even if one of the ten steps is removed then the system still finds a way to work debunks this example. Behe has many other examples which you may want to research on your own.
Conversely, Dawkins contends that irreducible complexity is a myth thanks to natural selection, gene duplication and genetic redundancy. Dawkins claims that components of irreducibly complex systems can have served other functions before becoming a link in an irreducibly complex system. For example, a gene in blood clotting might have been used to code information for the storage of oxygen in red blood cells before it was used to trigger solidification in the presence of open air.
Dawkins has a separate title, “Climbing Mount Improbable” (which I hope to read in the future), that goes at length into explaining seemingly insurmountable leaps in evolution by a sequence of small steps. Each step is slightly advantageous to life so these steps are added one on top of the other until you have a creature that, for example, doesn’t die if it receives a cut. Dawkins likens it to getting to the top of a shear cliff by walking to the other side of the mountain and ascending the gentle slope on the opposite side.
One last topic of interest Strobel includes is the mind-bogglingly large amount of information stored in DNA, which is likened to the cliché of monkeys on a typewriter producing not just Shakespeare but the entire volume of knowledge of mankind. All that information, except the origin of the very first piece of data, can be explained by natural selection. The problem is where did that very first piece of data come from that directed replication. Strobel refuses chance based on the improbability of proteins randomly forming a chain of replicating DNA. However, I would argue that our friend the anthropic principle might have something to say about that. The logic being that we wouldn’t be here to consider the first piece of data if that first piece of data didn’t replicate. Still though, that’s a bit of stretch. Where did that first piece of information come from? I don’t know.

Confused by my logic? Leave me a comment. Next, a dissection of some of the dubious points made by each of the authors, beginning with Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator”.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

This I Believe (part 1)

Now that I'm in full summer mode, eight hour workdays, five days a week with nothing much else to do, I can continue my serious blog posts. This is a long one.
We are well into my series of “Serious discussion…” posts (I’m working on part six currently.), and I’d like to begin a new series that I'm calling "This I Believe." I’m going to be spending most of the time delving into my struggles in deciding what it is I actually believe. I have had trouble over the last several years defining exactly what it is I prescribe to as a worldview. I consider myself a man of science (always), but I also consider myself a man of faith (mostly). So, where am I exactly? I intend on defining faith, considering non-overlapping magisteria, and many other topics.

First, a discussion of two books I have read recently.
I think of myself as an equal opportunity offender-someone who can offend not only the religious but the nonreligious as well. So, with that in mind I'd like to comment on some of my reading as of late. Within the last few months, I have read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. Both have their moments, but it's interesting that both use the same scientific facts to create a thought process that proves their arguments. They are arguing for a dichotomy; there is a God or there isn't. One of them must be wrong. Figuring out who is wrong is a problem. Despite philosophy being logical it's hard to prove wrong. (Which I suppose is the point, if it were easy I certainly wouldn't be worrying about it now.)

The first stepping stone they use is the anthropic principle. I've touched on the anthropic principle before, but I think it bears a second look. Both books spend a chapter or two each touting anthropic reasoning as proof of their argument. How is that possible? What does this have to do with God? What is the anthropic principle?
The universe has some very precise constants, fine-tuned is the clichéd phrase for it. So precisely tuned these constants are that the chances for just one of the constants (there are a lot of constants) being supportive of the universe we see today (galaxies, stars, planets made of stable atoms and molecules) are, according to some studies, along the order of one in ten billion raised to the 123 power (Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, New York: Oxford 1989, pg 344). Our universe, being more than 1/10,000,000,000123 against us being here, seems rather difficult to be scientifically explained. But wait…
The anthropic principle dates back a few decades, although allusions to it go back as far as 1900ish. A man named Brandon Carter first formally proposed the anthropic principle to defeat an argument for the Steady State Theory of cosmology which contended that not only are all places identical, but all times are also identical. This helped defend the now (mostly) accepted Big Bang theory. The argument comes in two forms, a weak argument and a generalized strong argument (kind of like how special relativity is generalized by general relativity). The weak argument refers to the selection of specific times and spaces in the universe for the development of intelligent life. In summary the weak anthropic principle says our existence coincides perfectly with conditions for intelligent life because life would not be around to measure the perfect conditions for its existence if those conditions did meet the needs of intelligent life. I imagine some of you just went, “What?...” To restate, we would not be here to measure stuff if the stuff we were measuring precluded our existence. The strong argument generalizes the weak argument to include fundamental constants and forces of physics. The conclusion to this is we are in a universe where the forces and constants are such that we can exist. (Which, I know, is rather obvious.) An implication of this is that there are universes where forces and constants do not include our existence. So, we are left with a theory of the multiverse, that we are in one of an infinite number of possible universes. Dawkins proclaims the multiverse as an alternative to the Teleological argument for the existence of God. (To sum up the Teleological argument in a sentence: God exists because the universe is too perfectly designed for there not to be a God. That’s a vast simplification. I suggest a bit of research on the subject - perhaps a topic for a future blog post.)
By introducing this idea of the multiverse, the strong anthropic principle selects our universe as one in which life can exist. This is analogous to the weak version of the anthropic principle selecting our planet at our time for intelligent life, which is also somewhat analogous to the Darwinian theory of Evolution selecting our genes for life. So instead now of exemplifying his atheistic view, Dawkins inadvertently advances an agnostic view of the uni/multiverse. A bit of explanation: Dawkins affirms that the multiverse is an alternative possibility to God having a hand in explaining the implications of anthropic reasoning (i.e. That despite the chances of humanity existing being infinitesimally small, there are an infinite number of universes in the multiverse, so the chances don’t matter. We are in this universe as opposed to the infinite other universes because if our universe didn’t support life we wouldn’t be here to consider it.). The problem with this is there is no way to prove a multiverse exists, just as we have no way to prove the existence of a diving maker. So, instead deifying a multiverse, we have to relegate Dawkins’s argument to an agnostic argument.
Strobel takes a different approach. Strobel asserts that the chances are so small for the conditions to be met for life that there must be some sort of overall intelligence or purpose in creating the universe. To dismiss the multiverse, he sites several scientists (specifically, John Polkinghorne) as discrediting the multiverse theory as “pseudo-science” and “a metaphysical guess” (pg. 140). But again where does this leave us; agnosticism. There is no way to prove God; there is no way to prove the theory of the multiverse. On this Strobel and Dawkins merely redefine the argument.

Confused by my logic? Leave me a comment. Next a short discussion on evolution and irreducible complexity.
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