Interview with a Strawman, Parte the Thirde

This is a list of questions I’ve compiled from various sources.  I thought they were pretty good, so I figured I would take a shot at answering them as Part 3 of the series.

These questions are different from the first two groups, in that they all assume that taking a position of non-belief translates to the adoption of a complete, self-consistent philosophy identical to all atheists.  So to that point, I want to reiterate that atheism is one position on the one idea of the existence of a god; therefore, there is no specific corresponding belief system that necessarily comes along with it.  I’ll concede that with non-belief comes the obvious disadvantage of no longer being able to use god as a catch-all answer to the otherwise difficult (and maybe unanswerable) questions about morality, creation, and the diversity of life.  As a result, there may be some similar trends among atheists in their beliefs, but no hard requirements other than a lack of belief in a god.

Second – I’m not exactly anything close to an expert in moral philosophy, politics, or anything else.  I’m also not making any attempt to be the next Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or what have you.  Recently I came to a realization regarding something I’ve been for a long time, and I thought I would write about it because the subject sounds interesting.  Further motivation is provided from some believers mandating that their beliefs are taught as “science” in public schools or established as “law” on the municipal, state, or federal level.  Add on top of that the idea that atheists in this country are generally seen as morally “suspect” and somehow untrustworthy, and I have all the reason I need to start writing, if only to make myself feel better.

So, here we go:

If there is no God, why is there anything at all?  (Or, why is there something instead of nothing?)

Because of some other non-God-like mechanism, I would suspect.  Honestly, this kind of question really shouldn’t be asked by people who aren’t capable of supplying a better answer than, “God did it,” dust off their hands, and walk away.  That assertion neither answers nor predicts anything.  There is currently no explanation regarding the cause of the Big Bang, but the proper response to this lack of knowledge and understanding is simply to admit we don’t know.  From big-bang-theory.com:

Our universe is thought to have begun as an infinitesimally small, infinitely hot, infinitely dense, something – a singularity. Where did it come from? We don’t know. Why did it appear? We don’t know.

The intellectually irresponsible approach, on the other hand, is to manufacture a conveniently omnipotent, undetectable, unmeasurable god who exists outside of time and space to act as the Prime Mover based on the assumption that everything – even an event that marked the beginning of time itself – requires a cause.

Well, everything except God, who by definition is the exception to the rule that everything else must follow.  Of course, the laws of physics also break down in a singularity, so maybe that could be the exception to the rule too.  I mean, if anything goes, I might as well get in on the action …

Oh, and speaking of the beginning of time, this article talks about a man who is developing a theory known as loop quantum gravity which attempts to combine relativity with quantum mechanics (something that’s been a bit of a thorn in the sides of cosmologists).  One of the results of this theory is that at t=0, the universe’s density was not infinite and its volume was not equal to zero.  The cool part about this is that the laws of physics no longer break down.  It’s all pretty interesting, and it suggests that there was a universe before this one that collapsed into the quasi-singularity that sparked ours.  To put it in perspective:

I want to stress that all of this is very interesting, and may possibly be borne out to be a better solution to the real physical situation of the Universe than anything we have now. Or, let’s face it: it might all eventually be tossed into the toilet. It’s a bit early to know.

Well said.  That’s science after all.

Where is the evidence that life could have begun without intelligent interference?

You first.  Otherwise, this is another argument from ignorance.  “If you can’t prove that intelligent design is false, it must be true.”  The burden of proof is on the “intelligent design” (i.e. Christian Creationist) community to provide objective physical evidence to support the idea of creation, and to date they haven’t done it.

The scientific community, on the other hand, puts forth numerous hypotheses to explain the phenomenon of abiogenesis.  Keep in mind none have gotten to the point where they could be considered theories, so the answer to this question remains unknown at this point.  I’ll get into some of the work being done in this field in a later post; since I’m not a molecular biologist or organic chemist, it may take me some time to figure it all out.  The bottom line is that the scientific community doesn’t know the answer right now.  Again, a lack of some kind of comprehensive explanation on the part of scientists doesn’t imply that Creation by a supernatural being is anything more than fantasy.

How can evolution explain features of irreducible complexity apart from intelligent intervention?

“Irreducible complexity” is a term coined by Lehigh University biochemist (and creationist) Michael Behe to describe the interdependency of elements within complex systems.  If one component of such a system were to be removed, the entire system would cease to function.  He then uses this concept to assert that complex systems such as the eye or bacterial flagellum could not have evolved through random mutation and natural selection because any small change (representing a previous “step” in the evolutionary process) would have rendered the feature useless.

This claim is overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community on the basis that it is complete crap.  (I suppose, technically, it’s an argument from personal incredulity, but I say my description is better.)  Let’s take the bacterial flagellum as an example, because that’s one of Behe’s favorites, even though it was debunked almost as soon as it was first mentioned.  The structure itself is a whip tail that is spun rapidly around by a complex ion-powered rotary motor embedded in the eubacterial membrane.  It is, admittedly, pretty complex … but Kenneth Miller of Brown University shows in his new book The Flagellum Unspun; the Collapse of “Irreducible Complexity” that (as one could infer form the title), such a structure is not irreducibly complex at all.  I’ll let him say the rest:

At first glance, the existence of the TTSS [Type-III Secretory System], a nasty little device that allows bacteria to inject these toxins through the cell membranes of its unsuspecting hosts, would seem to have little to do with the flagellum. However, molecular studies of proteins in the TTSS have revealed a surprising fact – the proteins of the TTSS are directly homologous to the proteins in the basal portion of the bacterial flagellum. As figure 2 (Heuck 1998) shows, these homologies extend to a cluster of closely-associated proteins found in both of these molecular “machines.” On the basis of these homologies, McNab (McNab 1999) has argued that the flagellum itself should be regarded as a type III secretory system. Extending such studies with a detailed comparison of the proteins associated with both systems, Aizawa has seconded this suggestion, noting that the two systems “consist of homologous component proteins with common physico-chemical properties” (Aizawa 2001, 163). It is now clear, therefore, that a smaller subset of the full complement of proteins in the flagellum makes up the functional transmembrane portion of the TTSS.

I could cite other examples, but the point is that the pseudo-scientific concept of irreducible complexity was something cooked up by a creationist who either didn’t do enough research – or simply couldn’t be bothered – to find the correct answer, and so went for what best fit his beliefs:  “God did it.”

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