Twenty Questions – Forking strawman

A rather odd claim comes from a doctor, Peter Saunders, that in the past 40 years he hasn’t heard any good answers to certain questions that he has asked of Atheists. This is an odd claim because atheism is to have no belief in god and it does not mean that you are an expert in biology, planetary formation, linguistics, cosmology or whatever other discipline that Dr Saunders thinks up questions for in his desperation to justify his faith. That 40 years is a long time: we did not have any proof of exoplanets, did not know the sequences of the human genome, did not have much idea on the anisotropy of the cosmic background microwave radiation so either Saunders asks the wrong people or doesn’t bother to listen to the right answers.

But here are my answers to these questions that supposedly “Atheists struggle to answer”. They obviously are hard questions because they cover a wide variety of disciplines and in the end it is not the “Atheist” in me that is answering these, as that is simply to not have a belief in any god, but my general interest in science. If I fail to answer these then it is because science either does not know or I don’t know – it is not because I have no belief in Dr Saunder’s specific god but because I am ignorant of the answer and I will then correct that.

I had to really think about the languages question as we know that haploid and mitochondria studies support the Out-Of-Africa theory but I haven’t found a clear correlation between known human migration and language families and this seems to be a wasp nest for politics. Whilst I accept this gap in knowledge I do not fill it with the nonsense that God decided to be a jerk and confuse humans due to an overly ambitious building project in downtown Babel.

The Bible (and the Koran) just record what was observed with the technology at that time rather than explaining what was observed. What they could not see therefore is not recorded. Bacteria, Aluminium and exoplanets are good examples of this in that bacteria are the world’s largest biomass,  Aluminium is the worlds most abundant metal, exoplanets are everywhere and yet none are mentioned though it would be trivial for god to mention these and that would provide evidence that the Bible or the Koran for that matter is not just a human book.

These questions are hard and most people would struggle to answer them in any great detail. I forgot about helium fusion and Class II supernovae. This information is not needed on a day by day basis but it is the origin of most of our oxygen in the universe as far as I can see. You don’t usually have to care about the creationist trolling forums, but you do need to understand people like Dr Saunders because as CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship he and his community bring unscientific voodoo thinking into the secular world of medicine. Whilst his heart may be in the right place the evidence is firmly against the foundation of what he believes in and in some cases we know from experience that kind of thinking kills people.

Of course if the answer to all these twenty questions is that Allah or God or some other deity did it then whilst that is easy to say it does not answer the question of how that is useful to humanity. Religion is learning the wrong answers and when these wrong answers are the foundation of a culture then that culture is fatally flawed.

Twenty questions atheists most people would struggle to answer

1.What caused the universe to exist?

The universe we see around us did not just happen but has evolved over the past 13.75 Billion years. There was no oxygen or carbon at the point of the Big Bang but at the first few moments after the Big Bang the most primitive forms of matter were unbalanced and enough persisted. Cosmologists are trying to understand how this imbalance happened.

What followed after that imbalance is much more reasonably known – the primordial elements of mainly hydrogen and helium collapsed under self-gravity to form stars, which then fused these primordial elements into the heavier elements. Some stars exploded scattering vast amounts of new elements into space. The Earth is a product of many such star nova. Personally I think that is rather awesome – the elements that made us have been fused by nature at incredibly high temperatures in stars which in time exploded.

Before a single drop of water was even possible it took the formation of a massive star to fuse helium fuel into oxygen using a triple-alpha process and after a period of stellar evolution this star would have exploded in a Type II supernovae flinging the newly fused elements into space. If the Big Bang is the “creation” alluded to by Theists then it was not over at the Big Bang but this event was but the start of the creation and no creation myth of any religion gets anywhere close to a coherent explanation for the formation of the elements in stellar nuclear-synthesis. Science finds the right answers if given the chance.

At the exact point of the Big Bang then there was probably no need for a cause any more than we need a cause for radioactive decay or quantum effects. The macroscopic models of causation in physics break down as the scales get suitably small (in much the same way that Newtonian physics is found wanting when relative velocities approach the speed of light) so it is reasonable that nothing is necessary to cause the universe to begin to exist in the first place. Victor Stenger presents this idea of nothing being unstable here. Obviously Theists posit a “uncaused” cause in the form of a God. That is the fallacy of  special pleading.
2.What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

Because it evolved that way. A subtle difference in constants would create a subtly different universe around us and if we were thinking organisms in that universe then we could be asking the very same question only it would be using different constants. If we were not then there would be nothing to know this to ask the question.

3.Why is the universe rational?

Reason and rational are methods of thinking and that is in brains. Quantum uncertainties at small scales are quantised at larger scales and the averages are predictable. We will never know when a single atom of an element will decay to its decay products but we can sum a large number of random decay events and create predictable clocks.

To us as observers the absolute foundation of our universe is not rational but utterly chaotic. The universe beyond the atomic scale becomes rational to us as the matter averages atomic scale random events.

Humans are very poor at random but we are very good at identifying causal chains. So good we see agency everywhere.

4.How did DNA and amino acids arise?

This is an odd question because both DNA and amino acids are formed from chemical reactions but amino acids are particularly simple because they can be formed through simple experiments in a lab that pretty well anyone with enough glassware can do. This was done in a famous experiment called the Miller-Urey experiment in 1952 and published in 1953 and it produced more than the 20 amino acid that life such as us humans uses.

Using water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen in an environment similar to what is suspected the pre-life Earth was, the experiment in a few week converted 2% of the carbon in the sealed system into amino acids. The Doctor Saunders knows this as it is basic biochemistry so an odd question.

More importantly this spontaneous formation of organic compounds needed for life happens in space – the Murchison meteorite that crashed in Australia in 1969 contains over 70 amino acids and around 14,000 compounds (the numbers vary according to how good your fancy machines are).

Certainly the amino acids are not proteins or nucleic acid (RNA/DNA) but this experiment and evidence shows that the essential building blocks take a fraction of time to form and are ubiquitous in nature.

The word people are looking for here is “Abiogenesis” i.e. from elements to life and whilst Atheists cannot easily answer this yet the problem isn’t lack of clues but a vast number of competing theories that build on each other.

Compare to amino acids which are trivially created, DNA is more complicated but it is decomposable into component parts so there is no irreducible complexity. RNA is essential to the formation of DNA and some simpler versions of replicase RNA can be synthesised in laboratories.

So in time we should be able to work out abiogenesis and the one thing you can guarantee is that no religious book will ever help in discovering this knowledge. It will be the result of hard work by many people over decades doing science and so helping humanity.

5.Where did the genetic code come from?

Again a process of “evolution” because with the amino acids there are many more than just those that life around us uses but the molecules that have been used are selected for because they are simple enough for the role. In laboratories humans can now create synthetic genetic sequences so this is not that hard a job – it certainly doesn’t need to be the skills of god just a very good lab.

The question though is a bit of a cheat though because it is saying “code” as if this was some information system. The real questions where do genetic sequences come from because there is no code but just sequences. Whilst some sequences are highly selected for others are much less so e.g. some amoeba have vast genetic codes that are much larger than our puny human genetic code.

Is that the sign of an intelligent designer or just expediency of nature ? The C-value paradox is a question that Theists will have problems answering. Some theists more or less base their whole faith on what they allude to as an “intelligent designer” of the genome but the foundation is their ignorance of genomics; a good example of this unfortunate ignorance is Jennifer Fulwiler  who felt that the “ intricate, detailed, complex information contained in DNA comes out of nowhere and nothing.“. Now I’m reasonably confident she did not look at the amoeba genome nor the human chromosome 2 but just flipped through some Intelligent Designer tract and said to themselves: do I think this out or just believe ? I suspect she went the easy way and took creationism on faith.

6.How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

There has been no irreducibly complex enzyme chains found. When one is posited e.g. when Michael Behe presented blood clotting as evidence for a God, then the evolutionary pathway to that is usually found as well. The usual party trick here is to present these so-called irreducibly complex enzyme chains as a long list of steps so that to befuddle the listener or reader. Unless you are a biologist then you are going to be stumped for an answer off the top of your head. But so far after all these decades whenever a creationist presents what they think is an irreducibly complex enzyme chain then you can guarantee that someone somewhere will have worked out a reasonable answer that shows the evolution of this.

7.How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?

Well the Biblical account is rather unlikely and also it sounds a bit petty of Dr Saunders’ god to deliberately confuse people who are trying to co-operate on a building project. I really don’t understand why people see this entity as something to worship given its anti-humanity. Though Christians have created a new entity to worship in the form of Christ , the foundation of Christianity is a god that routinely wipes out humanity. Nice ?.

The molecular clocks in the human genome indicate how we have migrated around the world but comparing language, genetic changes, race and human migration is a task that is made difficult by identity politics. The criticisms of Cavalli Sforza and the Human Genome Diversity Project have confused the science here. Cavalli Sforza, amongst others,  has looked at human genome differences and from that looked at cultural and language families and in that will probably be the very clear answer as to why.

This question though is the elephant in the room: the genetic variation in the human genome, the molecular clocks and study of disease that varies by genetic makeup means that people like Doctor Saunders, if they have a supernatural view of the origins of humanity, will not want to dig too deeply into a topic that questions their faith. The importance of genetic variation and disease is now compelling and those doctors that do not take this new idea on board, then as Ignaz Semmelweiz found with washing hands, this blinkered point of view from faith will kill.

8.Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?

Two thousand years is not “sudden”. Sure it is sudden in terms of geology but not in terms of human technology. That said, humans probably migrated Out of Africa and so are at the same evolution. The question though is nonsensical and you would have to look at agriculture, weapons, building and stonework, boat and transport technology.

9.How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

Is the universe ruled by chance ?  Sure chance exists but the laws of nature also exist e.g. the laws on Gravity. The motion of planets is not random.  At small scales then the uncertainty becomes a dominant part of a system but as the scale becomes larger (beyond molecules) then this uncertainty is averaged out.

Evolution has selected for chemical reactions that are able to survive in this universe because the random nature of the universe eliminates the molecules that are unable to persist. In time these molecules become what we call life. If it was not for the chance or the randomness in the universe there would be no life but it does not rule the universe.

The word “necessity” when mixed with the word “chance” is probably because the most likely use is related to causation. But at the small scale of quantum mechanics then chance is very much essential to that scale. The macroscopic ideas of causation breakdown and so the philosophical ideas of necessity also break down (or rather are found wanting).

10.How do we account for self-awareness?

Evolution of brains. Not just in humans but some other animals too. Quite possibly all animals that are not hive animals though not in the same way that humans view self.

11.How is free will possible in a material universe?

This is sort of a open-ended question. Depends upon what you mean by free will and what you understand a material universe to be. The universe is probably non-deterministic and if free-will is just the ability to make a decision based on an understanding of the outcomes of the different possible actions then I do not see why free-will would ever be impossible.

12.How do we account for conscience?

Conscience is moral behaviour that has evolved. It is no different from fear, hate or love in that it has a neurochemical background. If people have sections of the brain damaged then this can adversely affect their conscience.

13.On what basis can we make moral judgements?

We are social animals and so our morality has evolved with that in mind. Moral judgements are the outcome of games and payoffs.

The failure of Christianity, as with all religions and morality, is that there is very little substance to their claims to be moral arbiters. We find that humans have a highly evolved sense of morality that can be abused or confused or subverted.

By understanding the evolved origins of morality we can prevent this abuse. By presuming it comes from “God” then all sorts of misunderstandings are possible because then priests end up being the shining lights of what is right and they seem to be somewhat lacking in trustworthiness.

14.Why does suffering matter?

Not a very clear question:  Humans have evolved empathy with other people in that if we see another human suffering then we also feel the same suffering. This seems to happen with other animals too.

We also show this empathy with actions like yawning and again other animals will do this.

15.Why do human beings matter?

Because we evolved as social beings. In the big scheme of things nature doesn’t actually care about us so we have to care about us.

The idea that a God would care is nonsensical.That thinking removes responsibility from humanity and places it in the hands of something that has no evidence it exists.  We can’t solve problems by prayer – it has been shown to just not work.

16.Why care about justice?

Because we evolved as social beings. Even other suitable higher-order animals have a form of justice in their behaviours.

If we did not care about justice then it would not be selected for in our evolution.

17.How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

Today it is only if this is taught. Religions abuse children’s education and inculcate them with supernatural beliefs. Even in the UK there is  a mandatory daily act of worship of a Christian theme at schools. It is an indoctrination and works well with small children.

Equally if there was a celebration of nature and humanity then there would be a almost universal belief in the natural.

So that is the dichotomy: on one side a faith whose god slaughtered just about every human on earth but now it is sold as being “nice” verse a humanist stance that places the utmost importance in humanity.

18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist?

We don’t. So far we have had no evidence for the supernatural and that is after hundreds if not thousands of years of study. When we do then it will probably exist.  I don’t really see how this is hard to answer. The theist version would be “How do we know the supernatural does exist?” and the answer is the same !.

19.How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?

We don’t. So far we have reduced consciousness to chemical reactions in the brain so when these stop in the brain then there will be no consciousness. Our evidence is general anaesthetics and Functional MRI.

Even if you look at an information theoretic model of death, without the information  in the brain stored securely so it does not decay, the loss of the brain is the loss of   conscious existence and fact remains that brain rots just like any other organ after death.

An obligatory plug for a new project, Credodia if you are interested in eliminating information theoretic death.

20.What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

Much like asking Doctor Saunders what accounts for the Black Monolith on the Moon in the movie the 2001 a Space Odyssey. Perhaps it is fiction ?

The stories were written down many years after the events.  Without any contemporaneous records then it would be unreasonable to view this as evidence for God and thus a defeater for “atheism”. It is not that difficult a requirement – the Lord, if it existed, could have suggested to a suitably literate person to record this event that is supposed to be the most significant event in the history of humanity.

The growth of the church is happen-stance  but the most politically expedient move was to be at the Fall of Rome.  By becoming a political force the church has grown in Europe by leaps and bounds and has killed anything in its way that could be killed and has negotiated with what could not be killed.

As an atheist a few hundred years ago I, and many other secular humanists, would have been killed by the likes of  the Christians which Doctor Saunders identifies with. We would have been put into prison, tortured, fined and killed depending upon what we said and where we were.

Today the Christian churches can’t kill us secular humanists because human rights have trumped their moral values. In absolutely no way can we ever teach children that Christian moral values are above humanism because we have been there and done that and we’re still wiping the blood off the walls. No, I’ve not jumped from an is to an ought – those two are.

Through taxes and tithes and compulsory membership the churches throughout Europe have accumulated vast wealth. The modern era has seen the loss of power but the modern European churches still retain some of this with billions of Euros in taxes paying for the churches in Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Finland.

Without these taxes the churches would collapse.