William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

22½ Responses to 22 Messages from Creationists

A response to "22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution", compiled by Matt Stopera

(There are other responses. I'm going to avoid reading them so that I get the full exercise of writing this.)

I've been really 'lazy' about writing lately - it's so easy to write comments and preface tweets and Facebook posts of other people's articles that generally I feel like I get my voice heard to my satisfaction. Here, though, is a gift handed to me: 'All' I have to do is respond to these 22 points. A Facebook comment just won't do - this is far too important. Think about it and have your say, too.

What I am not doing here is saying you should not believe in a divine creator. You are entitled to that belief. I suppose you are entitled to any belief excepting things comparable to "it's okay for me to intimidate or kill Will"i but even then if you really wanted to hold one of those kinds of beliefs I couldn't stop you. But in this case you're also entitled to a general creator belief because we can't say there wasn't one.

If you're satisfied with that, go ahead and skip to the responses. But if you'd like to know why I am saying that we can't say there wasn't a creator and what that means, stay here.

If you're someone who observes a distinction between stories and evidence (e.g., data), it's straightforward to assert that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But the rejoinder is that it isn't evidence of presence either.

"No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion."

Consider the famous black swan argument: There is a (metaphorical) pond full of white swans. Can we say that all swans are white? The black swan could have flown off before you showed up. And even when you record in your diary, "Well, it looks like all swans are white," a black swan could return or, for biological reasons (if you'll pardon this sudden concreteness), emerge from the whites! We can't really prove beyond any question that there are no black swans, because we can't monitor the pond perfectly from the beginning of the pond to the end of the pond. But one black swan, and boom! There goes the "All swans are white" idea.

Yet you can visit a small pond and count the swans. You can do this and be fairly certain that you're correct, and you can say they're all white. Not that there are absolutely positively no black swans anywhere, just that there are no black swans in this pond right now. You could repeat this all over the world and find no (metaphorical) black swans. And you'd say, "Gee, it looks like there aren't any black swans, and we looked everywhere! I guess all swans really are white, but I'm open to changing this view if I see a black one. I'm going to say 'All swans are probably white. There are probably no black swans.'" Okay, perhaps I'm projecting my pedantic tendencies onto you.

So hopefully now you understand the wiggle room here. I have to leave room for you to believe in black swans because, well, maybe they're rare. Like really rare. I can't be 100% confident that they don't exist, but at the same time I can be practically 0% confident that they do, yet open to recognizing one if it comes along. Here's an example of something in which you might have nearly 0% confidence: Dodos still walk on Mauritius! It's possible that aliens came down and gave them cloaking devices, isn't it? Of course, it seems really really really really really unlikely. But show me the invisibility cloak and you've got my attention.ii Show me the evidence. (Though, to be fair, a creator God sounds much more reasonable than cloaked Dodos on Mauritius. Anyway, you probably don't need me to tell you why you have a leg to stand on for believing in God!)

And why should we give a care about science or evidence? In my opinion, it's because, together, they get results! Thought-provoking ones. Life-saving ones. Useful ones. We can use science and evidence and thinking to make things better for ourselves (broadly, as a human family). And if we can, I think we should. And that's it, that's the axiom I'm supporting. Now some people think there are things that people can do (that may happen to inflict misery on small or grand scales in this life) that will get people a better shot in the afterlife, so those things should be done. Depending on what those things are, this can be a problem. Anyway, if you're not one of those people who will use the afterlife end to justify all means on people other than yourself, let's carry on. If you are, remember that it's possible to be convinced to all get out and still be wrong. How do you think those other people who aren't in your religion feel about their religions? In cases where aspects of the religions in question are mutually incompatible (which is common among sects), how do you know you're the one who's right?iii

Beyond that attempt to appeal to common sense, I can't use evidence to tell you why you should value evidence. (In that sense, there is a leap of faith of sorts, see response #19.)

Note: On the questions, I've modified the punctuation a teeny bit and corrected two there/their errors plus one spelling error.iv

1. "Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?"

"Bill Nye the Science Guy" was a little bit flashy and corny for my tastes at the time, but my cousins seemed to think it was awesome. Not like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty awesome, but more like How Stuff Works awesome, or Curiosity awesome, except with corny music. I didn't have cable growing up so I only saw Bill Nye's show a few times when staying with my cousins, but I did have access to a goal-similar Canadian show: Richard Zurawski's "Wonder Why". Scant information is available about it since it was pre-widespread-internet, not to mention that it was produced in Halifax!v

In this video, Zurawski explains his societal role as a science communicator (distinct, as he points out, from performing science). Make a preacher analogy if you must. Ask why even advocate for science at all.

Well, I think science is good for us inasmuch as curiosity is. Children start out curious and then it often gets beaten out of them literally or through boredom. If it's not on the agenda, it doesn't matter. If it's an uncomfortable question, it shouldn't be asked. Today we're making Snoopys.

By allowing your children to be interested in science, or even (gasp!) encouraging them, you give them a chance to put their oars in the waters of the world and help make things better for all of us. By helping them develop their capacity to think, you will help them weather the storms of life.

Generally, I'd say those are positive things. Yes, a few people do terrible things with their intelligence. People also do terrible things out of ignorance. It's also, in principle, more challenging to do things effectively from ignorance. Pure intelligence and reason alone might not be enough to live peacefully, though, so by all means, let's hang onto what we're pretty sure are necessary ethics.vi

2. "Are you scared of a Divine Creator?"

I might be. For me, it would be a tremendous shift onto a whole other axiom and, consequently, system of thought. I'll tell you what it was like for me going the other way - it's scary to think that there isn't a divine plan (any plan that accounts for butterfly flaps in Mumbai as well as the Holocaust requires too much over-backwards-bending for my tastes) and, even scarier, that I am a forgettable piece of the (material, at least) universe. It took me a long time to get used to that.

Maybe we do go somewhere when we die. If that's the case, I look forward to finding out. It would also seem to be unfair that any transgression at all not paid for through sacrifice or salvation would result in eternal torture or oblivion.

By the way, if someone asks who am I as a human to question the ethics of God, who am I as a human to decide to promulgate my conception of the ethics of God? Are not "always doubt" and "always accept" equally problematic? And it was certainly mere humans who wrote the scriptures. Give them credit for believing they had a direct, interference-free line to the big guy, but as you're well aware people can be mistaken about just about any belief. Anyway, let's keep going.

I think at play here is a reverence for authority. It's all too common throughout the natural world, let alone humanity, and you gotta obey or else. But it must be (or at least have been) good for us as a whole, or we wouldn't have had it unless the cost were trivial.

Fight for us, and you'll go to a paradise of everlasting joy. Disobey usvii, and not only can you go to hell, you will go to hell. How this theme is similar through many conceptions of the afterlife is interesting, although they aren't all this way.

3. "Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings... Adam created as an adult..."

It's not so much illogical as it is extremely, extremely unlikely given what we're pretty confident we know.

Let's start with the idea of the Earth being created mature: You might be interested in Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything". In it you will see, in plain terms, how the estimations of science aren't arbitrary hocus-pocus. It is incredibly fascinating, for instance, how determining the age of the earth dovetailed with discovering that having lead in automobile fuel was very, very bad for us. Definitely check out this book - I guarantee it will dispel any notion that science is some kind of conspiracy. It's also (often darkly) hilarious how frequently human factors got in the way of science.

Back to the Earth. We know that the Earth is really, really old. Meteorites were used initially, though accepting an estimate that way requires assuming the whole solar system formed at pretty much the same time, to come to the estimate that it's 4.55 ± 0.07 billion years old (see endnote ix for more on numbers like this). The earliest lead ores we can find on Earth that also formed on Earth give a date of 4.54 billion years old. Anyway, this means that the Earth had lots of time to mature.

We know that distant galaxies are running away from us at breakneck speed - the farther away they are, the faster they go. We're pretty sure the universe itself is expanding, which led us to think that space itself may have been all together at one point and expanded from there, the "Big Bang" you've probably heard of. We've been talking about fundamental assumptions quite a bit already: for the Big Bang, there are two basic ones at the root of it, and they're in turn being tested. They're basically "stuff works the same way no matter where you are" and "there's nothing particularly special about any particular vantage point".

Looking deeper into the universe means looking farther back into time, and we can actually see galaxies forming, and we can see stars forming relatively recently and relatively close to us. Older stars tend to be more formed of very basic elements - hydrogen, helium - but newer ones have heavier, more complex elements too - carbon, oxygen - the kind of stuff you need to make planets. (We get compositional information like this through spectroscopy.) We think some really big older stars generated the heavy elements and stars like are Sun are a few generations removed, having formed along with some of the detritus of those expired old stars. As for how star systems form in general, there's a model. It has details, and they're way over my head.

Putting the pieces together, we have a basic narrative of how our own solar system formed, and we have evidence to support it. The experimentalists and the theorists talk to each other, and a defensible consistency is critical. When something doesn't go according to predictions, you may have discovered something new, but you may also have screwed up. (Usually, you screwed up. Try again.)

It's far more likely that the Earth formed, as all things form, and wasn't merely plopped into place. As far as trees and Adam go, I would make the same argument - things kept right on forming: galaxies, stars, planets, life, and beings like us who are wondering about it all. If you're interested in a non-trivial but accessible biological history of how we got to be us, check out Carl Sagan / Ann Druyan's "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are". Fascinating book. Life itself, the emergence of sex, homogeneity / heterogeneity... there's a great deal of interesting stuff there.

4. "Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?"

No, because a local increase in complexity and output isn't going to violate this overall principle. And as I read here, this is for closed systems. In such systems, things will tend to get more disordered and random as time goes on. But the Earth is a huge open system, getting input from the Sun literally all the time.

Still, the free lunch will be over eventually as the Sun gets hotter (too hot for us unless we move the Earth farther away from it) and runs out of hydrogen and starts fusing helium. And then even that will puff, and much much later the last stars will finally puff out, and all that's left will be a cold, dark, essentially motionless universe. Maybe, it's not settled yet. And that's assuming something else doesn't happen first.

I would actually love to be convinced, then, that this is not all there is, since there is seems like there'll be an end to what we know there is. Though there's just so, so, so, so much that it's not worth losing sleep over. Maybe we get reincarnated into other universes or something.

5. "How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?"

With findings from astronomy and physics, God or no God. Though in my case, poorly. I hardly know anything about sunsets and I'm only an astrophysics dropout. But taking the introductory astronomy courses for science students had enough simple homework problems and telescope usage to get me looking at the sky in a different way.

The sun sets because we're spinning to turn ourselves away from it, so to speak. (Or back towards it again, if you want to consider sunrises instead. But nobody gets up early enough.) We're a big old spinning rock with hardly anything to stop us spinning, though the moon is slowing us down a bit and earthquakes can speed us up. In fact, all the astronomical stuff in the sky rises and sets - the moon, the stars, the other planets. The day-to-day motion of the moon going around the earth can be judged by, for example, its phases, but the whizzing of the earth 'underneath' it hauls it across the sky way, way faster.

We don't feel the rotation of the earth - it's imparted to us already, and you know from just riding in your car in a straight line on a smooth road at a constant speed that you don't feel a constant speed but you sure do feel changes in your speed (and direction). Hit the gas, slam the brakes, make a turn - you'll feel those things. The earth is spinning reasonably steadily, and nobody's yet reached out their hand to stop it or spin it a different way. But even though we don't feel it directly, the spin has effects on things other than the sun rising and setting - check out the Coriolis effect.

As far as the colour of sunsets go, they get more orange-y because they have more air to shine through - that is, the line of sight between us and the sun goes through more atmosphere in the evening than it does at noon, kind of like this. The crazy bright short-wave colours get knocked out en route to us, but longer-wave ones like red and orange make it through. (Chinese astronomers, with the unaided eye, were even able to note sunspots, presumably when the sun was a deep orange. If you try this and find you have to squint, stop.)

6. "If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?"

The laws don't debunk the theories, and if there were a significant chance that they would, the physicists would be looking. If a thermodynamics result were able to overturn biology's evolution by natural selection, immense fame would await the discoverers, like it would if historical researchers found someone else who wrote Shakespeare's plays, or it how it does for O. J. for when he finds the real killer.

7. "What about noetics?"

I had to look up what this was. A critical problem with studying the metaphysical, if there even is a metaphysical, are legion: for me, the critical problem is they boil down to people telling stories of their experiences and using stories and beliefs to hobble together what it all means. (Imagine trying to conduct physics this way. It would be a farce.) That isn't to say story-sharing and metaphysical inquiry shouldn't be done, but it should be seen for what it is. If God isn't physical, then we probably can't detect God with physical means (at least not directly). Yet that doesn't necessarily mean God exists. Or that God doesn't. So we must leave you to be free to believe in God - the only time we're necessarily going to chafe is when we have conflicting ideas about what's appropriate to do in this life. Like about what children are permitted to learn in the schools that we share.

By all means go about metaphysical inquiry. If you can come up with something metaphysical that refutes the physical, yet also have it be a something that I could potentially refuteviii, it would be as big of a feat as my being able to use evidence to show you the value of evidence. Actually, maybe bigger. Good luck!

8. "Where do you derive objective meaning in life?"

I don't understand how this is a problem. Where can anyone honestly derive objective meaning in life? In a sense, everything is subjective - I can't even be 100.0% sure I exist, but it's so close that I think I might as well act as if I do. I don't mean all views are equally likely to be correct, but there are - probably - limitations on how certain we can honestly be, no matter what the thing is. (And how certain we can be about our certainty! And so on, if you wish to torture yourself.) You may be interested in learning about the Münchhausen trilemma.

It's nice, though, to feel like I'm part of a special plan, that I have some kind of meaning or Purpose in Life, or that life in general has a purpose. With difficulty, I can accept living without it, or at least without a baked in, pre-ordained purpose (or judging after the fact that a purpose I would be otherwise inclined to think I found for myself was actually pre-ordained). It seems to be working for me, generally. How do I know that? Well, how do you know your way of seeing purpose works better for you? I'm happy to accept a cease-fire on this unprovable point. Is there something innate about the purpose the way you view it that my failure to adopt a similar view will prevent me from reaching the heights upon which you sit? If you must, pity me and then move on.

If I have to pick something (I don't think I have to; bacteria and bonobos seem to get along fine without much evident existential inquiry ... although!), I'd say I find meaning in life through learning and discovery. I'd say I value living well, too, but only to a point - a bit of adversity is probably good for you. As the secular proverb goes, the north wind made the Vikings. These days, we Westerners are so comfortable and affluent that we have to torture ourselves.

Also, sexy stuff is pretty nice. I like that stuff. I like it a lot. I dare to think that it feels so good because it is so good. Generally. We must be careful not to do things that are innately tormenting to others, and also have a care or ten about addressing extrinsic torment before doing anything controversial.

9. "If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?"

Perhaps, inasmuch as it had a really long time in which to do it in. (Which isn't to say it was gradual, just that it had a long time to spark.) But it's likely not as wacky-random as, say, molecules randomly getting together to form structures. As you'd probably guess, a universe full of monkeys banging on typewriters aren't going to crank out Shakespeare even on time scales hundreds of times of timsing by ten longer than the age of the universe. (They might have a crack at generating postmodernist papers, though.) But given hundreds of millions of years, a lightning strike could hit a right puddle at a right time.

We may have had surface water 4.4 billion years agoix, but our earliest evidence for life so far only takes us back 3.7 billion years (though this piece is indirect). We have microbial mat fossils, discovered in Western Australia, from 3.48 billion years ago. So the upper limit on the time it took between surface water and life is about a billion years. But we don't, it appears to me, have a lower limit. It could have taken, let's speculate, a million years, and the rarity of fossilization and the fact that our crust gets recycled means that we'll never see it, though a very few rocks look like they're around 4 billion years old. (Given the rarity of those, it might be hopeless to find fossils of 4-billion-year-old life, even if it was abundant.)

The study of the origin of life is called abiogenesis, a huge field of inquiry, and one I personally have less than even a superficial knowledge of. And there's still lots to learn, so perhaps your children could contribute to it. There is no standard model yet for how life originates, but plenty of plausible 'non-interventionist' ideas.

You may be interested in Martin Hanczyc's protocells - globs of chemicals that behave like living cells. Deep sea vents are another origin possibility - and particularly exciting because Europa could have these too. We would, though, have to make sure any life we find on Europa didn't merely hitch a ride on a rock blasted off the Earth. Or Mars - hey, we could be Martians.

One thing about the origin of life - it may be impossible for it to happen again in the presence of established life. Not only are the conditions now not what they used to be (oxygen, for instance, is quite toxic if you're not adapted to it), but existing life is stirring everything up all the time.

Given the absence of a time machine, and, yes, the rarity of fossils (because fossilization itself is relatively rare - there are certainly many ancient species that we just don't know about at all because they didn't happen to leave a fossil or at least one that we found, and we tend to only see species that had hard parts), this is a tough row to hoe.

10. "I believe in the Big Bang Theory... God said it and BANG it happened!"

You're entitled to that belief. Even though we are starting to probe what was happening starting from (in principle) after the first 1/10000000000000000000000000000000000000000000th of a secondx (we can't directly probe earlier than that, but we have a name for that time nevertheless), we can still only speculate about why the universe goes to "all the bother of existing". The question "What came before time zero?" might not make any sense, but the question "Why have a universe?" does, even if we never answer it. (By all means, try.)

As Stephen Hawking wrote, "The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"

Even if we have a mechanism for spontaneous creation, it still doesn't address why anything does exist, only a shade of how. Like how did we get the law that permits spontaneous creation? Somehow, "there is something instead of nothing because there can be something" is a trifle unsatisfying - how did it get so that there could be something? It's enough to make you want to go with Turtles all the way down!

Perhaps "there is something because there can be something" will just have to be our new axiom.

(I'm assuming here that you're willing to take the Big Bang more or less at face value, but attribute it to God. If you require a case to be made for the Big Bang itself, I refer you to response #3.)

11. "Why do evolutionists / secularists / humanists / non-God believing people reject the idea of there being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?"

Sure, there are probably people who don't believe in god, who may have a passing familiarity with evolution, who also believe that ancient aliens "planted the seed," so to speak. But there are lots of people who don't believe in god who believe life could have originated and evolved here. (Though it may have originated and very-early-evolved close to us instead of right here exactly.) Count me among those people, though I don't want to imply that we should accept the nature of something in a particular way just because there are other people who accept it the same way. One person or even none can have a reasonably accurate view about any particular thing. You can be the only right person in a room, though be careful about thinking you're right because other people vehemently disagree.

The origin of life on Earth is, as you might imagine, not the easiest thing in the world to investigate, so a natural temptation is to punt the problem of the origin of life somewhere else. (Though moving it within the solar system I can understand - for a while, conditions on Mars may have been better for life than they were on Earth.)

12. "There is no in-between... the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an 'official proof'."

Here's a list of human evolution fossils. Lucy, though, was remarkably complete (40%).

Evolution proceeds by natural selection (analogous to the artificial selection we impose on, say, domestic dogs), but to a large extent the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle applies - which it should, if you're on a pattern that works. It seems that there are long periods of relative stasis - the genes really come out to play when there are stressors and pressures and doing things the same old way isn't an option. This model is called punctuated equilibrium.

So if we're looking for hundreds of forms between the earliest primates and us, we may be barking up the wrong tree. Even if the fossil record is spotty because of the innate problems with forming and finding fossils, the other forms may never have existed anyway.

You're right to put 'official proof' in scare quotes. We can only ever disprove some things (and we have to use common-sense assumptions even then); we can't really Prove™ anything. And we should wonder about assertions we can't disprove. Would you be with me if we decided, in the face of someone who said "Nothing is real," to not take that too seriously? I mean, if "nothing is real", that assertion isn't real either.xi (See also: This statement is false.)

Nothing is real and life is meaningless and why am I even writi

13. "Does metamorphosis help support evolution?"

It's a product of evolution, along with everything else of extant life. One of the remarkable solutions to emerge from the relentless selection in nature. A good reason to have it would be so that you don't have to have the young and old competing for the same resources. (More.) Indeed, sometimes the adult forms can't even eat.

Does evolution look like metamorphosis? A bit, I suppose. The line leading to the modern horse is probably our best example.

14. "If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible), why then is Evolution taught as fact?"

There's nothing beyond "theory". Newton's universal gravitation is a theory, and we used its predictions to successfully send people to the moon - and back! Einstein's general relativity is a more nuanced theory, more broadly accurate, and we use its predictions to keep track of Mercury and get accurate GPS services.

Darwin noticed that the birds on the Galapagos more closely resembled American birds than Cape Verde birds (which resembled African birds), even though the Galapagos and Cape Verde habitats were more similar to each other than the islands to their continents. Today we have a great deal of evidence for common descent, though it's not the easiest stuff in the world to comprehend, and sometimes you have to purchase access to the papers.

If a theory makes predictions that hold, it should be taught as fac- well, as a successful theory. Theories are perpetually open to improvement, nuance, and falsification. This even happens in religion, albeit in a much more fraught manner, especially when "Heretic!" can get you killed.

There's enough evidence now that it is unlikely to simply be wrong, though we may discover additional mechanisms behind evolution - similar to how Darwin clued into natural selection, but it was later that the geneticists discovered mutation, or DNA itself for that matter.

15. "Because science by definition is a 'theory' - not testable, observable, nor repeatable, why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?"

The theory makes predictions that need to be tested, observed, and boy howdy they need to be repeatable, and repeated. A respectable and essential part of science is taking results other people promulgate and trying to replicate them yourself so that we know the first results weren't just a fluke.

Being taught non-scientific things in school when scientific methods exist is disingenuous at best and a roadblock at worst. We have these wonderful brains, and we live in a world of instant information, easy access to data, and universities filled with scientific equipment. Let's explore! Let's make things better!

And let's say you do believe the universe was created. You can believe that and we can still live together! If you are curious about the creation we are in, why not use the tools we have, derived from creation (of the time-zero kind, for example), to investigate it to the fullest extent? The problem with intelligent design when it comes to evolution (as opposed to, say, cooking up the natural laws of the universe in the first place that would allow solutions to problems and intelligence itself to emerge from nature) is that you have to be a bit wilfully blind to take it seriously. Sure, we're all wilfully ignorant sometimes, but encouraging such wilful ignorance is placing roadblocks between us where instead we could be working together.

Science-minded people are interested in teaching fairly consistent facts about things we can know that require minimal leaps of faith. To teach things that require great leaps is getting into religion, and in the United States at least, teaching in public schools theories of nature derived from religious tenets violates the First Amendment. Of course, something merely being illegal isn't alone all the reason required not to do it. If that were the case, dictatorships could never be overthrown. But in this case, the legal foundation that allows the government to stay out of your religion also means your religion has to stay out of the government (and the schools it runs). You may or may not consider this to be fair.

16. "What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?"

Funny thing, the genome for the marbled lungfish is bigger than ours. Way bigger. We have about 3.2 billion base pairs. Those lungfish have 130 billion. The conclusion is perfectly clear: God has amazing plans for the marbled lungfish. But seriously, it's not just the number of genes you have, it's also the order they're in and whether or not they're 'conserved', and and and and...

You can, though, get a duplication, followed by a point mutation, thereby effectively having a new gene, though what use it is will be another story. Very interestingly, point mutation occurs more often when it's advantageous! Boy, genes are shrewd little buggers! But they had to be.

There are also limits and trade-offs that we're discovering, intimating that sometimes genes are merely repurposed rather than added-on. For example, we think our particular kind of colour vision comes at the expense of our sense of smell. And we discovered with Siberian silver foxes that we couldn't breed out their aggression without also making their coats spotty.

By the way, the whole lecture series that video is from, Robert Sapolsky's "Human Behavioural Biology", is amazing - so much so that it's not going in an endnote, I'm telling you right here! Books for it are Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (his) and Chaos: Making a New Science (James Gleick), but they're not really required if you can't get them (at your library, for example). An older version of the penultimate lecture (which didn't get taped again, and isn't in the playlist) is available here. Okay, see you in a month! :-)

17. "What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?"

I don't think life needs a purpose, but I'd like to know about the causes of it and most of all the cause for having a universe, and what context, if any, we fall into. For all we really know, we're fuzzy crud on the parts in somebody's computer. Well, probably not.

As for salvation, are bacteria here for salvation? I just wonder what's so special about us, other than the fact that right now we're being us. I would love to know the mechanisms behind that - why I'm on the Will Show 24/7 and you're on the You Show 24/7. Are there any ways we can find out while still being in our present lives?

There's an idea that we're here as a lesson to the universe on "What's so bad about sin?", one that I was exposed to when I attended an explicitly Christian private school for two years. Not only do we suffer here, but we're here for suffering. This makes people double down on holding a rather dim view of the world and adherents are understandably eager to get on with the next one. At least that's how it worked for me, as I drew pictures of the apocalypse in grade 9 art class.

If we can build a 'heaven' for ourselves here, we can make the waiting for the real one you expect go a little easier. I'm willing to speculate that heaven is something we have to build if we want it, not something already out there waiting for us nor something we got booted out of. I wouldn't take any particular picture of the future too seriously or strictly, but check out the Venus Project for an example of what some people envision.

It's unlikely that we'll get truly everlasting non-stop joy, unless we're willing to re-engineer ourselves. But is non-stop joy even necessary? The point of joy would seem to be nature's way of telling you, "You done good, you done good." Unless you're unimaginably busy doing good, you wouldn't think you'd get that feeling all the time, and nature might prevent you anyway, even if you are crazy busy, because otherwise you might work yourself to death in the pursuit of joy. And even if we overcame these apparent challenges, then the joy itself might drive us nuts, if this idea from the Matrix has any meat on the bone.

18. "Why have we found only one 'Lucy', when we have found more than one of everything else?"

Gosh, we wish we had found even one of everything else. We're fortunate to have found what we have.

19. "Can you believe in 'the big bang' without 'faith'?"

No, because we need a certain bit of faith to accept any proposition whatsoever. But we can use evidence and reason and common sense to decide which propositions to accept. I'm fairly certain I'm sitting at a chair typing this. But maybe I'm in a coma and this is all a dream. Or maybe dreaming is the real world. Still, science seems to be doing a bang-up job at helping us understand this imaginary world. We can have this engagement because of it!

Over the past few decades I've become fairly certain that physics isn't some great conspiracy - it's not just a big joke foisted upon the world by people who want to look smart. It has enough consistency within it and with nature that such a conspiracy would be an extraordinary feat - of the scale where you would need a deity to pull it off! But that doesn't mean there is a conspiracy and there is a deity and the deity is doing that. It's a possible explanation, but it seems really really really unlikely (the conspiracy and the deity-running-the-conspiracy parts, anyway).

20. "How can you look at the world and not believe someone created / thought of it? It's amazing!!!"

It doesn't get less amazing as you start to work it out. Having some answers about the nature of the world just seems to lead to new questions.

As John Archibald Wheeler puts it, "We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." (Scientific American (1992), Vol. 267.)

It's amusing and cute that people at the end of the 19th century thought the major work of physics was pretty much wrapped up. I doubt that determination will be made with intellectual honesty about any broad field of inquiry ever again. Our conceptions of things change in remarkable ways: To think there was once a time when people looked up at this and didn't know it was the center of our galaxy, or that there was such a thing as a galaxy!

21. "Relating to the big bang theory... Where did the exploding star come from?"

It's not a star exploding, it's an expansion of space out of a single point of unimaginable heat and density. But it's fair to ask why that single point came to be, or perhaps even 'where' it came from, but the 'where' might be irrelevant, or incomprehensible even if it is relevant. Also see response #10.

22. "If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?"

Well, we're apes, though we do have a common ancestor with monkeys somewhere. You might also ask: If all land-living vertebrates came from amphibians, why are there still amphibians? If most multi-cellular life descended from, say, archaea, why are they still around?

The goal isn't to get to be the most complex thing around or the smartest ape in town, the (DNA's) goal is to keep the DNA going, at virtually any cost. (Yet patterns of reciprocal altruism emerged, at least among organisms that weren't directly competing. Stronger together! (Read more.) But put two organisms trying to do the same thing together, and one will eventually outcompete the other into oblivion... that is, if one or the other don't adapt.)

If you don't need to change to survive or get a leg up, you probably won't. Moreover, the thing that offshoots from you and moves on to a new niche because of the competition will leave you in yours, unless you're both packing up and leaving. I would say "leave you alone in yours," except that they may come back to eat you from time to time, so you may end up developing some interesting defences.

It could be that we got smart because there was a niche to exploit that required being smarter. Heaven help us if this opportunity happens for dolphins or other apes.

There are plenty of ideas about the nuts-and-bolts of why and how this happened - one that appeals to me is how social competition among ourselves may have made us make each other smarter. This may now be cranking into overdrive because of our media and culture.

Finally. Not only has this been the hardest thing I've ever written, but I thought it would be trivial to write! But if it were as easy as, I dunno, pouring a drink of water is for most of us, we'd all be nuclear-astro-cosmo-omni-talented-wonder-whizzes. But we can all get to be better thinkers, armed with verifiable information, and continue the work of understanding and appreciating our world. Thanks for reading.


i. I mean, if I'm not Hitler. Actually, I don't think it's worth retaining capital punishment even for mass killers and despots. Our having such an appetite for retribution makes it less likely they'll ever surrender, and the potential rewards of becoming a dictator are so beyond imagining that you might as well pay little heed to any punishment, if it ever comes, since who gives a great care about punishing failed would-be dictators? And hey, they might actually believe they're doing the right thing by becoming the dictator.

When is it appropriate to kill? In my opinion, it's when they're on your doorstep coming to you, you can't debilitate them or debilitating won't help you, and you don't have the luxury of negotiating. If you kill people who are merely potential threats, you give everybody else an excuse to kill you just because you could kill them. It probably won't end well.

The 'die' part of "live by the sword, die by the sword" may not come about to you personally, as you can leave the consequences for others. You might be a mass-killer with a bitchin' sword who then retires in the sun somewhere, but you're giving people permission to meet your sword with their swords, and those people will still be around when you go, unless you killed every last one of them. (Please don't try this.)

ii. Though someone with such an invention may be tempted to keep it an absolute secret. As soon as somebody knows you have it and believes you mean them ill, they'll go about their business much more tightly and you'll be a pariah and end up like Gollum.

iii. A friend in high school told me, when it comes to religion and afterlife: "I think what you believe, that's what you get." It seems too idiocentric (based on ourselves individually) to be believed! But it is a mechanism for how we could all be right. For the afterlife, I can accept "everybody is right" explanations. When it comes to physical stuff, though, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the over-backwards-bending to make us all be right can put us in an untenable position. I'm sitting in a chair, but if you choose to assert that I'm standing up, I'm not inclined to entertain a philosophical framework in which I'm standing, unless we're just debating for fun. If you're interested in learning about knowledge itself, the name of the field is 'epistemology', though more 'spiritual' approaches (song) certainly exist. (For what it's worth, I love George Harrison but I don't wish to be "brainwashed too.")

It's possible that you're right and everybody else is wrong. But the more and excuses and bends-over-backwards you have to make to come out right, the less likely it is that you're right. Example: Dodo's aren't extinct, they've just been cloaked by aliens.

C. S. Lewis, in The Last Battle, paints the religion of the pseudo-Arab Calormen as being opposite to the pseudo-European Narnia's. I'm just going to quote the summary in Wikipedia:

Emeth, who expects Tash to smite unbelievers with heavenly fire, goes searching for Tash in Aslan's Country, but instead meets Aslan. It is revealed that Aslan and Tash are opposites, with each existing as the antithesis to the other. Aslan tells Emeth that 'all the service thou hast done to Tash, I accept as service done to me' and further explains that 'no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him'. He explains that Emeth's pious devotion, because it was rooted in a love of justice and truth, was really to Aslan rather than to Tash, although Emeth had not been aware of this; Emeth finds great happiness in this revelation.

Ah! So, say, Muslims are really going to be Christians in the end, they just don't know it yet! Of course!

If you want to use this kind of reasoning so that you can sleep at night without worrying about whether good atheists go to heaven, you have my blessing. Although I love knowledge and understanding, justice as we do it here has a lot of retributive aspects in it that I don't care for. I think we give people too much credit and responsibility for the weather patterns in their brains, we have very narrow views of what constitutes ethical behaviour, and we often mistakenly accept that following the law must be ethical and breaking it must not be. Anyway.

iv. Why not put things just as they were and use [sic]? Sometimes that's the right thing to do. But when the stakes are this high, it isn't the time for the equivalent of "Ha-ha-ha, they said 'their going to get there vegetables at the grocer.'" Point it out if you must, (and pointing it out isn't necessarily scorn but I'm taking the safe route anyway) but if you're inclined to be scornful you might want to consider if it's good to be the first to be scornful. There's a good little XKCD comic about this when it comes to not knowing things. If we're going to inhabit the same space, it behooves us to engage each other rather than drive people away.

v. Wonder Why? aired on CTV until 1994. Going by my memories, other 30-minute cartoon or cartoon-dramas (e.g.: Gargoyles) sprang into place for awhile. Then in 1997, CTV gutted its Saturday morning lineup and put in Disney's One Saturday Morning. I didn't like any of the shows (no, not even Recess), and although the absence of it alone wouldn't have made me not watch, I wasn't much impressed with the educational content. The most I remember is someone in a white coat saying some seemingly arbitrary fact about the natural world and then asking, head askew, "What's up with that?!" Teasing at least a little bit of what was up with that wouldn't have killed them. Though maybe I was lazy when the point was to be actively curious.

vi. Sam Harris argues in his book The Moral Landscape that there can even be a science of morality, if you take well-being of conscious creatures as the desired goal. It is likely that many of the answers of this science will match ones most religions have already found (e.g., "Thou shalt not kill." (though not necessarily with the redress prescribed there!)).

vii. 'Us' inasmuch as for this sentence I'm not concerned about from where the authority is derived.

viii. If I can't potentially refute it, I can only take it on faith. Science gets the results that it does largely because it, generally, keeps the faith axioms to a minimum. You're welcome to go beyond the scope of science in your inquiries, but taking things back to science from those voyages will be a philosophical challenge to say the least.

ix. I'm tempted to write it out: "4,200,000,000" but we're only reasonably certain about the 4 and bit less about the 2. We can deal with this by using scientific notation - take the digits you reasonably know, then note how much you have to multiply or divide by ten. We'd write 4.2 billion like this: 4.2 × 109. For when the range of certainty is required, you'll see a "plus or minus" (±) and a another number, indicating that the 'real' result is within the range of the reported number minus that up to the reported number plus that.

x. The same issues with accuracy arise with the very small just as they do with the very large. The Plank epoch is defined as zero-to-one Planck time, and the Planck time is about 5.391 × 10-44 seconds. For general-interest purposes, we can informally round that up to 1 × 10-43 (0.5391 rounds to 1), which is the 1/10000... thing I copied from WolframAlpha.

xi. Unless you get into paraconsistent logics or something. As my friend would put it, that's an exercise for the reader.
Tags: creation, evolution, philosophy, religion, science
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