This is a blog post about this book – Surprise Endings by ‘A bunch of fools and rejects’.
They have a challenge that you’re not supposed to be able to read this book and remain an atheist.
Having gotten into it on Twitter and being the lovely chap that I am I offered to go through it if they provided a copy. Which they have. So here I am.
Despite the ‘100% atheist-destroying’ claim the book is, apparently, more written to be aimed at Christians and other believers. This is made pretty obvious in the introduction when they talk about the ‘soul’.
I’m not sold (to put it mildly) on the idea that a soul exists anyway so being concerned about its wellbeing comes way, way down the league table of ‘Things I Care About’ compared to first establishing whether it exists or not. My position is that it doesn’t. All the evidence that we do have suggests otherwise and suggests that consciousness is the result of complex interactions and emergent behaviour in the physical brain. Mess with the brain, mess with the expression of consciousness. There’s just as little evidence for an incorporeal soul as there is for a god (none at all).
Chapter One: The Creation/Evolution Wars are Over
This chapter gives a brief overview of Young Earth Creationism and how it goes against all science – not just evolution. The summary of YEC issues is concise and amusing, but a quote at the beginning of the chapter gives me cause to worry:
“How surprising it is that the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe should allow for the existence of beings who could observe it.” —Steven Weinberg,
Nobel laureate, high-energy physicist
The chapter purports to be about evolution, but this is pretty obviously setting up to talk about ‘fine tuning’ and the physical constants of the universe. Which has, if you’ll excuse me, fuck and all to do with Evolution by Natural Selection. It suggests that the writers haven’t done their reading or study and are conflating a host of different theories into one great big ‘naturalism’.
When it gets into the scientific side, there’s a problem with trying to create a false equivalency between the crazy (nix that, crazier) end of the theistic spectrum with the new-atheism.
“Underline this: just as leaders within the Creationist establishment gladly “speak” for all Christians and God, evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stinger, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett claim to speak for science. Their public position is that they are at war with religion in general, but don’t be fooled—it’s really Jesus Christ they’re after. ”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of these figures claim to speak for all science. They present their arguments – forcefully – but don’t claim to be speakers. The atheist ‘movement’ – for want of a better term – is not unified save in that we don’t believe in god. Many do have an admiration for science and its achievements but all atheism is, is: “I don’t believe in god/s.”
I do understand how it may seem that new-atheism’s beef is primarily with Christianity but you must understand the fact that new-atheism is largely a western phenomenon and from countries where Christianity is the biggest issue and problem. One need only look at the issues over abortion in Texas and the close vote to strike down DOMA to see that Christianity is very much a problem in the US and, to a lesser extent in Europe and elsewhere.
Islam is, of course, also a problem but there have been less direct conflicts with Islam until recently. The same goes for other faiths. Christianity is merely the one that we, as atheists, bump into more often and have more conflict with because of it.
Otherwise I agree with the summary there. Primitive superstition does indeed have to be gotten rid of and those of us on the anti-theistic side are pretty much agreed on that.
“Darwin was right. There, we said it. Okay, he was mostly right. Scientific research has confirmed that life—all life—did evolve from a single bacterium that “woke up alone and probably quite happy”
I feel like I’m nit-picking, but first life wouldn’t have been anything remotely near to as complex as a bacterium. So it’s a bit eye-grating to see that said here.
Worse is this:
“But who—or what—is driving this incredible train: God or chance? ”
Evolution by natural selection is not chance. Hence the term ‘selection’. The slower cat fails to catch the faster mouse and dies of starvation. The cat doesn’t pass on his slow-arse genes, the fast mouse lives and gets to reproduce. While there is some chance in mutations and encounters, the important part, the engine that drives evolution is the selection part.
The book then starts talking about The Big Bang and gets some things right and some things wrong. It’s not a burst of energy per se, but rather an inflation of spacetime. Right from the get-go the book is presupposing direction and purpose to the universe without establishing it to be true.
“Looking back then, it’s not hard to see that the original energy that launched the cosmos began with a mission (if that’s the right word) to form stars that would eventually pressure-cook heavier elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen—which would then fuse to form our Solar System, where, on the third planet from the Sun, sentient primates would emerge from that same swirling dust.”
These are consequences, not plans in any way, shape or form.
When talking about scientific naturalism and materialism, they have this to say about our ‘No god, no soul, death is the end’ viewpoint:
“Wait! Not so fast! There is absolutely no evidence to support this “when it’s over, it’s all over” view of reality. None. Zippo. This is still your good old- fashioned barn-burning, boogie-down leap of faith. They hope that when it’s over—it’s all over. ”
Hope? No. A nice jolly afterlife could be very pleasant and we don’t generally like the idea of ceasing to exist, even though it gives temporary existence meaning and value. Rather we accept that on the basis of the evidence this is how things seem to be. The point being that there is no evidence for the positive assertions, that there is a soul, a god or an afterlife and thus the only rational position to hold is that they do not. With this passage they’re trying to fallaciously shift the burden.
They try to describe scientific atheism as ascribing everything to chance. I’ve already addressed this with relation to evolution, but this is still repeating a strawman and, thus, as a criticism it fails because chance isn’t the important factor, or even the main one.
Science does not say the universe ‘popped’ into existence by chance.
It does not ascribe abiogenesis to chance.
It does not ascribe evolution to chance.
The book posits three questions:
1. How did we get here?
2. Why are we here?
3. If there is an afterlife—how do we get there?
Of these, only number one is actually a legitimate question. ‘How did we get here?’ is a valid question to ask, and one that has – through science – largely been answered.
‘Why are we here?’ presupposes that there is a reason. ‘Why’ is a question that can only be asked of intentional agency – like humans – that have reasons for doing things. Before asking this question you would first need to establish that an intentional agent – one with volition – was responsible.
Number three is actually two questions. You would have to demonstrate the existence of an afterlife first, then ask the second question. We have no reason to suppose there is and I told hold out much hope of the book providing one.
Again the strawman of chance rears its head through selective cherry-picking, completely ignoring the important part – selection.
Yes, science paints a ‘grim’ picture of the ultimate fate of the universe (in many billions of years) but just because something is grim or makes you feel insignificant doesn’t mean that it isn’t also true.
The reader is asked what would convince an atheist of the existence of god.
The answer is, as always, evidence.
The book does not provide said evidence, rather it makes a peculiar argument that because our scientists with the resources of only a single planet and a mere 400 years or so of formal scientific investigation can’t create universes, god must have done it. A classic argument from ignorance/personal incredulity.
There’s just so much that’s wrong in this book it becomes hard to continue.
The idea that human evolution has ‘stopped’ since the advent of consciousness for example.
Consciousness is a continuum, not an ‘on off’. Earlier hominids than us had consciousness, certainly neanderthals whom we coexisted with. The other apes and many other animals show different degrees of consciousness. Not even tool-use is unique to humans, we have just taken it further and higher. While our tool use cushions us from raw natural selection there’s no reason to think it isn’t still going on. Lactose tolerance – for example – is still spreading through the human population as are some genetic mutations that lead to stronger muscles and bones.
We are cushioned from, but not immune to, evolution. Evolution also takes time. In a species with as long a reproduction cycle as us and with little selection pressure we wouldn’t expect to see the kind of rapid changes and instances of speciation or novel traits we see in bacteria, fruit-flies or other fast-reproducing species.
Nor is a moral sense unique to humans as recent studies on apes, monkeys and even rats have shown. Animals also display empathy, a sense of justice and so on. Most especially in social species like us. Why? These behaviours – and cooperation – have positive survival utility. It’s evolutionary psychology.
This evolutionary basis seems to supply the basic morality that we share but we’re also undermined, reinforced and supplemented by the memetic morality that our societies create. These can be good and useful so long as they’re not maladapted to our situation (that’s why we need to keep reassessing and overturning laws and moral judgements) but often they’re awful and counterproductive for humanity – but great for the survival of the meme. Evangelical, forceful religion for example.
These are not non-physical realities. They are the result of real, physical situations and are ultimately ‘written’ into the physical mind, conditioned, carved into the electrochemical pathways.
The First Question Again
1. Did the Universe come out of nothing?
This may not even be a valid question. Given that space and time are one and began at the same point you can’t have a ‘before’ the universe so it cannot meaningfully have been said to ‘come into existence’. It has ‘always’ been.
Evoking a prime mover or first cause doesn’t solve the false problem being presented, for if the universe needs a creator then so must the first cause. If the first cause doesn’t, then why would the universe?
2. Are we rocks/stars?
Yes. The same stuff, arranged in a different way by self-replicating mechanisms that have increased in complexity over time due to evolution.
3. Are we biological information systems?
No. Information is a name we ascribe to things. We make it up. We interpret it. We assign it to things.
Again with the arguments from ignorance/personal incredulity. I recommend that the authors read up on Szostak’s work on abiogenesis and that – coming the other way – of Spiegelman and his ‘monster’. Yes the complexities of DNA etc can arise naturally.
The Darwinian Paradigm
The book describes this as:
2. Natural selection
3. Chance (random mutation)
It would be better described as:
2. Natural selection.
Again the book fails to properly account for and address the ‘natural selection’ part of this. Preferring to concentrate on the strawman of ‘chance’.
Nature doesn’t anticipate changes in the environment. Evolution is reactive. The variable traits that better survive are passed on and sometimes you get novel mutations that help survival and are, similarly passed on. Accumulate enough change and you get a new species.
There’s an attempt to create an equivalence between ‘god of the gaps’ and ‘we don’t know yet’. This is, of course, patently false. ‘I don’t know’ is an honest answer, ‘god did it’, is not. Any answer requires evidence, not empty shouting.
I’m going to stop there.
This is a very, very disappointing exercise, stronger against the YEC viewpoint but failing to even understand the scientific or atheistic viewpoint. It repeatedly bangs the ‘chance’ drum, which is not evolution. It repeatedly mingles Darwinian evolution with cosmology, abiogenesis and various other matters. It constantly makes arguments from personal incredulity and ignorance. It is not up to date on the science – most notably vacuum fluctuations and virtual particles as well as evolutionary psychology.
On on P49, Section 2 and frankly there is no will (or need) to continue if the level of argumentation is this bad and riddled with fallacies.
A dialogue might work better, but based on what I’ve read so far this book will not be convincing to any serious atheist.