Jan 04 2013

Responding to Commenters on Created History

“I Woke Up This Morning, And I Realized That Somebody Had Broken Into My Apartment, Stolen All My Things And Replaced Them With Exact Duplicates.”

– Comedian Steven Wright

Yesterday I wrote about the young earth creationist argument that, even though the universe is only 6-10 thousand years old, we can see light from stars billions of light years away because God created the light already on its way to earth. I pointed out that this argument requires that God also created an entire fake history of the universe, including light from supernova that never occurred of stars that never existed. The one-liner above, delivered dead-pan in the style of Steven Wright, is funny because we intuitively realize the absurdity of the statement. How would one know, and even if it were true, what’s the difference?

The post inspired some interesting comments, and sometimes I like to respond to comments in a separate post. One of the things I enjoy about blogging as a literary form is its interactive nature. I always find it more interesting to respond to the arguments of others rather than just give a monologue or lecture. I find it more effective as a teaching tool, because you are confronting specific thought processes and resolving differences of reasoning. For convenience I will include only the section of each comment I will be responding to. You can browse through the comments to the original post if you want to see entire comments, who left them, and to respond directly to them if you wish.

So he says because a statement is nonfalsifiable it makes it untrue? There are plenty of nonfalsifiable statements that could be true or false. Evolutionists assume there can be no miraculous events, therefore no miraculous events occurred. Circular reasoning if you ask me.

I actually never said this. I find it interesting that this is a frequent reply to me when I write about religious claims. I am long on record as specifically not taking this position – because something is unknowable it is therefore untrue. Philosophically, this is not a valid position. My position is the agnostic one – because something is unknowable (unfalsifiable) it is unknown. I never said there is no God and the universe was not created. I simply pointed out that such a hypothesis is not scientific because it is not falsifiable. I would go further and say that such ideas are worse than wrong – they are worthless. I respond to them as a police officer would if Steven Wright filed the report above. I wouldn’t waste any time searching for the thieves and would have some serious doubts about the intellectual fortitude of the person filing the report.

What we can say is this – when we investigate the universe with the process of science, which includes the necessary assumption of cause and effect (methodological naturalism), we see a universe that is 13.75 billion years old. When we look at life on earth and fossils we see evidence that life has evolved over several billion years. Those are the scientific answers, and there is no serious debate about them. We can invent, however, an infinite number of  stories about how the universe and life came about, freely invoking magic as needed, but resulting in the exact same physical evidence. I don’t see the value in any such ideas, because we can never investigate them, and they cannot inform us in any way.

Further, as several commenters pointed out, the principle of Occam’s Razor applies – unnecessary components to a theory should be excised.

So scientists do not say there are no miracles. They say that you cannot invoke miracles in scientific explanations. Miracles are not even wrong – they are irrelevant, and when removed by Occam’s razor they are not missed.

Evolution is a very loose theory with no detail as to how it actually happened. Sure, we see “natural selection” all the time. But no one can give details of how we got from primordial soup to even a cell. I’m not sure anyone could make a claim about these details that would be falsifiable. What does that mean about the “Theory of Evolution”?

Creationists make statements like this all the time. They are expressions of their own ignorance of evolutionary theory. Biologists are actually now able to give a great deal of detail about the methods and history of evolution. They cannot give complete or an arbitrary level of detail, which is true of any scientific discipline. In the decades since Darwin, however, evolutionary theory has been incredibly successful at explaining and predicting the details of biology, geology, and paleontology. The entire field of genetics was discovered after Darwin. It could have easily and in many ways falsified evolution. Instead it has become the most powerful evidence for evolution that we have.

Sad argument. We benefit from science and from religion. There need be no conflict. Whether God created us in His image, or the other way around, there are truths both about the world and about people. Science and religion have much to teach about our world and about us. There need be no conflict between the two. In fact, as I understand it, in general science AND religions (not just the various Christian ones) teach that some things i.e. initial conditions and what “came before” them, may remain unknowable, in which case which way the creation arrow points could be a matter of personal preference, with neither choice taking anything away from what is and could be known about us and our universe.


 I share in your frustrations with the scientific denial of some Fundamentalists, but please don’t use it as an excuse to object to Christianity as a whole- or to speak frankly, don’t throw the baby out with the bath.

These points are worthy of their own post, but I will deal with them quickly here. This is the position that has been characterized by some atheists as “accommodationist.” To the second comment I would simply say – where is the baby? I guess this depends on how you define “religion” and how specific religions behave. When it comes to any factual knowledge of the world, I feel religions have literally nothing to offer. The approach of religion to factual claims is fatally flawed – it is based on authority, superstition,  or revealed knowledge, which are not valid or useful approaches. They are also in direct conflict with the scientific approach to knowledge. There can be no accommodation here.

Within the realm of morality and ethics, there is a potential role for religion, but I would argue that in such cases religious thinking, to the extent that it is useful, is really just philosophical thinking. I prefer philosophy without the constraints of a belief system, tradition, or authority. Ideas should stand on their own, not because they were written down two thousand years ago. In fact it seems to me that religion is a hindrance, if anything, to philosophical thinking because it comes with so much baggage.

This leaves perhaps the collective wisdom of a culture or people, enshrined in religious tradition. Perhaps there are some insights to be gained there, but again I feel they should be filtered through philosophical evaluation, logic, and empiricism when applicable, and they should also be nimble and adaptive to changing times. Religion has the effect, rather, of giving undue influence to the thinkers of the past because their ideas have become dogma.

Religion does provide a sense of community and identity, and this has been shown to have objective benefits. However, it is the community aspect of religious experience that seems to be the benefit, not necessarily the belief system. Secular versions are possible, and this is, in fact, the Secular Humanist experiment – to replace what is beneficial about religion with a secular version.

I am open to other arguments about what is beneficial about religion, but so far I don’t see it. Also if you consider the net effect – the good and the bad – I would way it heavily toward the negative.

But you are equally wrong about evolution. It is simply impossible for the 100trillion cells of the human body to self organize into all of the incredible systems which make up a human body.

If you are asked, “What is life”, you can only reply, ” I do not know”.

If you are asked, ” How did the first life form arise from the basic elements”, you can only reply, ” I do not know”.

The first statement is an argument from personal incredulity. There is nothing to support the conclusion that it is “impossible” for the human body to have self-organized. Simply stating it does not make it so. Just because the commenter cannot imagine the process does not make it impossible.

The rest of the comment is a combination of an appeal to ignorance, and the confusion of unknown with unknowable. The commenter also confuses not knowing everything with knowing nothing.

There is actually a great deal we can say about what life is, how it may have arisen, and how it evolved after coming into existence. There is still a great deal that is unknown. Welcome to science. There are also many ways we can ask and investigate these questions, and scientists are doing just that.

Notice,  however, how much the commenter emphasizes ignorance and the futility of knowledge. They would have us throw up our hands, give up, and just accept superstition and the futility of knowledge. This, in my opinion, is one of the worst aspects of fundamentalist religion – the surrender to ignorance.

Don’t think, don’t question, don’t investigate – just bow your head in obedience to dogma. They see any pretense to knowledge as hubris, because they see inherent virtue in worshiping a god and denigrating humanity. They view humanity as children.

There is a place for proper humility and we should avoid the excesses of pride, but at the same time there is empowerment in believing in the potential of humanity, in celebrating what we are good at, and in exploring the universe to find answers. This last comment, more than any other, shows the potential of religion to inhibit progress, to stop questioning, and to hold back humanity. I could not have made the case more clearly myself.


Another comment appeared on my previous post that I would like to address at length, so I thought I would add it here to keep the conversation in one place.

To start, the ad hominems (though mostly subtle) do little to encourage conversation. The Richard Dawkins types with pretentious attitudes in the agnostic/atheist camp are unhelpful to the conversation.

Nowhere do I engage in ad hominem attacks or arguments. I address the arguments of the creationists, not the creationists themselves. Learn to tell the difference.

Dr. Novella your world view holds two un-provable positions.

1. Uniformitarianism (the way everything functions today is how it has always since the beginning of time).
2. Naturalism (everything in the universe can be explained by natural processes (the supernatural is excluded).

These claims are both untrue.  I have already dealt with the second point. Scientists do not assume naturalism. It has been already argued and clearly decided that naturalism is a necessary premise to the process of science. This does not mean that everything can be explained (scientism) or that there is nothing supernatural, just that supernatural arguments are not allowed within science because they don’t work. I give a full discussion of this here. 

Uniformitarianism is neither assumed, unprovable, or necessary to science. What we can say is that, so far, the laws of the universe appear to be stable over time. Using the assumption of stable physical laws is also working quite well – it is not producing any anomalies. Further, assuming that physical  laws change over time is unwarranted by anything else we know about the universe, and there is no evidence for it. Further, rather than solving any problems it creates a host of challenging problems that are simply unnecessary.

Young earth creationists would like to assume, in a completely ad hoc/special pleading manner, that they can change the laws of physics and the constants of nature as needed in or to rig any observational results to fit their preconceived conclusions – a young universe. Again – if you are able to alter the laws of physics at will to fix the answer, you can fit your conclusion to any evidence.

Western culture has largely come to equate the term “science” with things that are absolutely not “science”. For example, all of history is not “science”. One cannot prove via science that George Washington was the president of the United States.

Wrong again. This is the “history is not science” gambit. We absolutely can use scientific methods to investigate the past, because the past leaves evidence in the present. We can form hypotheses about the past that we can test with observations and evidence. This is science. Creationists, however, would like to arbitrarily exclude history from scientific investigation so that they can have free reign to insert their religious beliefs.

The bottom line is all truth claims are difficult to determine, but we have no other choice, and appealing to strong naturalism or the scientific method as the only source of truth (in which you don’t even actually stick by) is as C. S. Lewis stated, like the drunk refusing to look anywhere for his keys but under the street lights, because it’s dark elsewhere.

Science is not about “truth” – it is exactly about what we can know with scientific methods of investigation – where the light is. This is not a choice, because we have no choice. The arrogance is in assuming that you can know truth or have some other method of knowledge – that you can see even where there is no light. And again – you don’t have to appeal to strong or philosophical naturalism, only methodological naturalism.

Another problem is your misrepresentation of the light travel problem. You state that the speed of light travels at the same speed and always has (probably true, but not proven by science), yet you simply ignore the fact that this issue is not only a creationist problem.
In reference to the big bang the similar problem is referred to as “horizon”. I am sure you are aware of this problem, and I wonder why you skip over it while calling foul at the creationists for having the same problem you do. Now this doesn’t prove your view wrong, but it surely doesn’t prove creationism wrong either. Both views may be wrong, but neither one stands on higher ground in reference to this issue alone.

Science does not deal in absolute proof, only probabilities (although probabilities can get damn close to 100%). Existing evidence and logic supports the conclusion that the speed of light is constant, and there is no reason to question this (certainly not to the degree necessary to accommodate a universe only thousands of years old). Next he moves to a typical creationist strategy – refer to a current “problem” with our scientific understanding as if it somehow condemns fundamental conclusions of science that it doesn’t really affect. I remember in the 1990s the creationists were using the solar neutrino problem to argue for a young sun.

The horizon problem refers to the fact that parts of the universe are separated by such a distance that they are beyond the horizon – there would not have been time for light (or any information) to reach from one to the other. However they seem to have the same temperature, which should not be possible if they were not in communication. This, however, does not require a change in the speed of light. In fact, it has probably already been solved by the inflationary universe theory. There is no equivalency here.

The remainder of your article largely deals with a straw man argument. The creationist (the ones I know) do not pretend that God created supernova’s (history) that did not exist. While we do suggest that creation was created in maturity, the light travel time problem is generally not attributed to this.

I love this – I am often accused of a straw man argument – even when I am directly responding to someone else’s claim or argument. I never said that all creationists believe this, or that this is their one and only answer. I simply addressed the debate at hand. The commenter is simply bringing up a separate special pleading argument that some creationists use, and I have now dealt with that.

Finally, there are numerous examples of things that are better explained by a young universe than an old, and pontificating that the universe looks entirely in every detail as if it were 13.75 billion years old is ignorant of the data and creationist claims.

Name one. I don’t think there is a single piece of evidence that points to a young earth – but I am always willing to learn.

For an explanation of the basic ideas some creationists hold, see the following link. It also addresses some of your fallacies you used in making your argument.

Thanks for the link – I read the whole article, it adds nothing new. It does admit that there if the speed of light were not constant that would create major problems with other laws of physics, and does not offer even a guess at a solution. So, it just glosses over a fatal flaw of that argument.

The best is the appeal to relativity. No – general or special relativity would not work to rescue a young universe. This is something that is highly experimentally demonstrated, so there really is no wiggle room here for creationists. It also says:

Many secular astronomers assume that the universe is infinitely big and has an infinite number of galaxies.

Wrong – that is not the consensus. The universe is finite but unbounded, and the number of galaxies is finite. I am not even sure where they got this, but is shows an unfamiliarity with basic science.

Suppose that our solar system is located near the center of a finite distribution of galaxies.

We know we are not at the center of the universe because of the red shift of galaxies. In fact – there is no center – again, an unfamiliarity with basic scientific facts.

In that case, the earth would be in a gravitational well. This term means that it would require energy to pull something away from our position into deeper space.

Wow. In addition to be purely made up special pleading, we can know that this is not true based upon astronomical observations. This is a complete swing and a miss.

What the commenter has demonstrated is the perils of relying upon secondary hostile and ideologically motivated source for your scientific arguments and facts. The Answers in Genesis article gets it completely wrong (except when they acknowledge a few legitimate arguments against their own position – only to replace them with worse arguments).

159 responses so far