I am not, in posting these, saying that atheists have no answers to them, only that as yet in over forty years of discussion with them I am yet to hear any good ones
Of course, neither I nor Dr Saunders is the final arbiter of whether an argument is good or not, so presumably we should interpret that claim as that he has not accepted these answers. He has an opportunity to explain why not here, rather than merely waving them away as 'not good'.
I have addressed these answers personally to Dr Saunders but please feel free to answer them if you think Dr Saunders is right, or that the answers are unsatisfactory.
Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer
- What caused the universe to exist?
We do not know exactly what happened in the first 1*10-43 seconds of the life of the universe. This is the Planck length of time, in other words, the smallest unit of time which can exists so it is, in effect, unexaminable by science. Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design goes into this question at some length and concludes unequivocally that gravity alone is sufficient to explain it and that there is no evidence for a supernatural involvement.
Given that, at the quantum level, there is no such thing as nothing and everything is subject to unbounded fluctuation, this initial Planck length of time probably does not need to be explained in terms other than an unbounded quantum fluctuation. At the moment of it's nascences, the universe was already 10-43 seconds old and this time is sufficient for gravity to separate from the other three forms of energy, so allowing a hyperinflation in which energy can be created with reduced entropy so obeying the Laws of Thermodynamics. Science has developed very accurate mathematical models of the Big Bang following this initial 10-43 seconds and observation has confirmed these models to a remarkably high degree of accuracy.
Lawrence M Krauss also goes into this question in some detail in A Universe from Nothing as does Victor J. Stenger in God the Failed Hypothesis.
So, three questions for Dr Saunders here:
- Were you unaware of the work of Hawking, Krauss and Stenger?
- If not unaware, in what way are their explanations unsatisfactory?
- In the absence of a scientific answer to this question, how exactly do you conclude that the only alternative is that the Christian god caused the universe to exist?
- What explains the fine tuning of the universe?
The universe is not fine tuned as Victor J. Stenger has shown in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning
So, again three questions for Dr Saunders:
- Were you unaware of Stenger's work debunking the 'fine tuning' fallacy?
- If not, in what way exactly is Stenger wrong?
- Why is there no possible natural explanation for the 'fine tuned' parameters to which you alludes?
- Why is the universe rational?
In the alleged 40 years of asking this question one might have expected you to have formulated it in such a way as to make it look more like a question designed to elicit truth rather than to score points. Never-the-less, I'll try to answer what I think you mean although you could equally have asked why water is wet.
The universe appears amenable to reason to humans because the human brain has evolved to be good at pattern recognition, so we look for explanation in terms of cause and effect because that's what experience tells us is the best way to explain things. In pursuit of this aim we have developed science which is a methodology for examining evidence and seeking to explain it in understandable ways by developing theories then testing those theories against observation and experiments designed to show which of several competing theories is the best explanation. Hence, the universe appears rational because we have rationalized it.
- Would you expect the universe to be irrational?
- If so, why?
- If not, why did you ask this question? In what way does it address the existence of gods?
- How did DNA and amino acids arise?
The basic principles of chemical reactions have been known for some considerable time. There is no mystery in the molecular structure of DNA or amino acids and no reason to invoke magic in any explanation of how inter-atomic bonds occur. Any intermediate level text book on organic chemistry will contain detailed explanations of the various types of chemical bonds which are involved in molecule formation.
- As a medical practitioner, are we really to believe that organic chemistry is a mystery to you?
- If not, what was the purpose of this question other than to falsely create a gap in which to sit your favourite god?
- If the answer to this question was truly unknown, in what way does it support the hypothesis that the Christian god is the only way to explain it?
- Where did the genetic code come from?
An evolutionary process, which is the inevitable result of imperfect replication in a selective environment. The first replicators are unknown but various theories exist to explain them. We may never know for certain which is the correct explanation simply because it is impossible to create all possible environments under laboratory conditions. This seems to be a major worry for religions but it matters not one jot to science. We know a replicator of some sort arose because we can see it's descendants. The precise nature of it is merely of academic interest. It's rather like not being convinced that raindrops started higher up because we can't say for certain precisely where.
Whether the first replicators were autocatalytic RNA molecules or inorganic molecules such as silicates is a matter for speculation but RNA probably became involved at an early stage. Quite simply, as a basic understanding of evolution should tell you, replicators better able to exploit the resources in their environment in order to produce more copies than their rivals will be more successful and will come to predominate. Quite simply, the 'genetic code', which is possibly the only code possible, evolved.
- Why would you expect the genetic code to not exist?
- How would the inability of science to answer this question with complete certainty at present support the hypothesis that the Christian god is the only possible cause of the genetic code?
- What medical advances can you think of which were produced by scientists looking at an unanswered question and concluding the a god must have done it?
- How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?
By co-option of pre-existing enzymes from other processes.
The Talkorigins website has very many articles dealing with this subject under the general heading Irreducible Complexity Demystified.
- Were you really unaware of the many on-line articles dealing with this topic and answering your question, of which the above is just one?
- If not, in what way exactly do the answers given not answer the question?
- Why did you not ask for an explanation of the evolution of a specific process in a given species?
- How do you account for variations of these processes and of less complex chains producing the same or similar outputs in other species if the chains are really irreducibly complex?
- Why would an intelligent designer design so many different ways to achieve the same result and why would it create analogous systems in species which, when arranged in order of degree of difference, look like they evolved from a common, more primitive ancestor?
- How do you account for redundancy in organisms and evidence of inefficient, stupid design, such as the recurrent laryngeal nerve and a broken ascorbic acid manufacturing process in many primates?
- How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?
As a quick search on Google would have shown you, Merritt Ruhlen has written several books dealing with this subject.
- Were you aware of the work of various authors on this subject of which the above is one example?
- If so, why do you think your question has not been answered?
- If this had been unknown to science, in what way precisely does it undermine the Atheist position that there is no evidential reason to believe in any god?
- Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?
'Suddenly' as in spaced over some 2,000 years, i.e the time between the height of the Roman Empire and today? Perhaps we are using different meanings of the word 'suddenly'
In fact, the earliest communities tended to be in river valleys such as the Nile, the Hwang Ho, the Ganges and Indus, and the Tigris/Euphrates. Cities did not 'suddenly appear' and were not 'all over the world' as your question falsely implies.
Cities became possible when humans had developed agriculture and so labour could be divided between those who produced food (farmers) and those who produced goods (potters, weavers, etc). In many areas of the world where there were suitable crops which could be farmed, and animals which could be domesticated, humans established settled communities. Those communities which could produce larger populations came to dominate and ideas and methods which worked better would have been copied by neighbouring communities. Ideas spread by being copied as well as by movement of people.
In many parts of the world people remained hunter-gatherers of course and nomadic pastoralism was a major way of life in Central Asia until very recent times, hence the frequent incursions of Asiatic peoples into Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and into China.
- Were you unaware that many areas of the world never developed cities or urban life-styles?
- How do you account for the continued existence of subsistence agriculture, hunter-gatherer peoples and nomadic pastoralism if, as you claim, there were cities all over the world?
- How does the existence of cities support the notion of the existence of the Christian god?
- If cities were somehow facilitated by your favourite god, why did it wait until 3000 years ago and why did it not give them to everyone?
- How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
Another question which looks designed to be unanswerable rather than to elicit truth through scientific reasoning. I could with equal disingenuousness ask you how prayer is possible in a world dominated by the motor car and television. But I won't do that. I'll ask you a few specific questions so you can justify your question and give it a semblance of intellectual credibility.
- Why would you expect it not to be?
- Why do you believe thought is independent? Independent of what, exactly?
- Why do you believe the world is 'ruled by chance and necessity'?
- In what way is this question a problem for the Atheist position that there is no evidential reason to believe in any gods?
- How do we account for self-awareness?
This blog deals with that very subject: An Evolving Sense Of Self.
Daniel Dennett's book Consciousness Explained deals with this subject in great detail.
Susan Blackmore also deals with it in The Meme Machine
- Were you unaware of these latter two works, which are just two of a number of books and online articles which answer your question?
- If not, precisely how do they not answer your question?
- If science had been unable to offer an explanation of self-awareness, how would that gap undermine the Atheist position that there is no evidential reason to not be an Atheist?
- How do you account for very evident self-awareness in other species?
- How is free will possible in a material universe?
Again, a question in which your premise is merely assumed and which appears to be unrelated to the second clause. Several authors have questioned the idea of 'Free Will', including Sam Harris in Free Will. As a medical practitioner I would expect you to be aware of the research of Daniel Wegner and Benjamin Libet which calls the idea of free will into question, so your basic premise is far from established. I'd frankly be astonished if you were unaware of this.
- Were you really unaware that there is no scientific consensus that there is such a thing as free will?
- Why would you expect a material universe to have any impact on that debate and why, as your question implies, would you expect it to render it impossible?
- How can free will exist in the presence of an eternal, omniscient and inerrant god?
- How does the existence or otherwise of free will impinge upon the Atheist view that there is no evidential reason to believe in a god?
- How do we account for conscience?
As an evolving, intelligent, social ape, the ability to work together as a team was essential. Those groups which evolved a memetic basis for behaviour towards one another and who cared for one another would have been the more successful groups and so would have succeeded where others failed.
These blogs, Religion: An Abdication Of Moral Responsibility, Xeno's Religious Paradox and The Evolution of God all address this question.
As a physician, I would be astounded if you were unaware of the concept of empathy and, as a Christian, I would be astonished if you unaware of the idea of treating others as you would wish to be treated, which probably marks more than most the influence of Humanism on an otherwise inhumane and brutal tribal law of the Middle Eastern nomadic goat-herders who codified their laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the book of Hebrew origin myths called the Old Testament.
- Why would you expect an evolving, intelligent, social ape not to evolve a set of memes by which to work together as a co-operative society?
- How do you distinguish between someone who doesn't know right from wrong and needs to look them up in a book and a psychopath?
- How do you account for the differences and similarities between different human cultures and societies if they all get their moral codes from the same supernatural source?
- How do you account for the fact that a society like Sweden with it high Atheist population is more peaceful and has far less crime than a highly religious, predominantly Christian society, like the USA?
- How do you account for the statistics in this blog - Not Good With God?
- If you believe you can only tell right from wrong by reference to the Christian Bible, how do you know it was written by a moral god and not an evil one trying to mislead you? In other words, how do you know Satan didn't write the Bible?
- On what basis can we make moral judgements?
This is, of course a repeat of question 12.
- Why does suffering matter?
This is also a restatement of question 12.
Why does suffering matter to whom or what? Suffering matters to those suffering and to those who can, or would like to, do something about it. It matters not one jot to the universe. The suffering of it's prey matters not a bit to a predator. The evolution of altruism is fully explained by genetic evolution.
- Why does suffering not matter to so many species in a universe you believe to have been created by a caring and compassionate god?
- Why does pain persist when it has ceased to fill any useful survival purpose?
- Why would you expect an evolving, intelligent, social ape to not be compassionate and care about its fellows when this produces a better, more cooperative, and more trusting society.
- Why has Christianity so frequently and readily used deliberately brutal methods of torture and execution for those with whom it disagrees, as shown here and here?
- Why do human beings matter?
See the answers to questions 12, 13, 14 and 16.
- Why do humans not matter to non-humans if, as you believe, the universe was created for them by a caring and compassionate god?
- Why does it look as though morality evolved in humans by a process of memetic evolution similar to the process of genetic evolution?
- How do you account for parasites in a universe created by a caring and compassionate god?
- If there is a caring and compassionate creator god why does it look as though he hates Africans, and especially the children?
- How can this photograph exist in the presence of a caring and compassionate god?
- Why care about justice?
Once again a restatement of Question 12.
It's becoming rather tedious to explain that this is exactly what we would expect if humans are an evolved, intelligent, social ape. I'm wondering if you have so many questions because you have refused to learn this stuff incase it sets up too much cognitive dissonance. I am assuming, of course, that your apparent ignorance of these subjects and appreciation of how well they answer your questions is genuine.
- Are you really unaware of the idea of memetic evolution (have I asked that before? I'm beginning to lose track) and how well it answers so many of your questions?
- If not, what precisely do you find inadequate about the answers it provides?
- How would failure to explain human cultural evolution as a natural process undermine the Atheism idea that there is no evidential reason to believe in any god?
- How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?
By the almost universal tendency in humans to settle for easy answers and by childhood gullibility, the evolution of which can be readily explained, as in The Evolution of Gullibility.
- How do you account for a falling belief in supernatural explanations as science makes more and more discoveries, and by a lower belief in the supernatural by the more scientifically literate?
- Why did the supply of prophets and miracles appear to reduce markedly as we became more and more knowledgeable and our understanding of the universe increased?
- Why is 'magic' a more satisfactory answer to mysteries than saying "we don't yet know but we're working on it"?
- How do we know the supernatural does not exist?
We don't. By definition nothing supernatural can be detected or measured since it cannot interact with the natural world, so it is beyond investigation.
As a man of science (presumably as a physician you do acknowledge the value of science) aren't you ashamed at needing to try to divest yourself of the burden of proof? If, as you imply, you believe there is a supernatural, the burden of proof lies with you. What evidence can you present that a supernatural exists and how did you go about examining something which, by definition, would be beyond the reach of natural processes?
- I normally take an attempt to divest oneself of the burden of proof as evidence of an awareness that the idea being presented is false and of the intellectual dishonesty and moral ambivalence of the perpetrator. Why should I not do so in this case?
- If your god is supernatural, so by definition cannot interact with the natural universe, how does it influence anything?
- If it can influence anything it is not supernatural so should be detectable by science. Has your god been so detected? if so, where may the evidence be seen?
- How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?
But why would we expect the brain to function when the rest of the body's physiology has stopped, especially given our knowledge of the importance of oxygen and nutrients to a functioning brain and its sensitivity to any compromise in their supply? Would you expect the kidneys or muscles to continue to function after clinical death?
If your belief is that there is conscious existence after clinical death the burden of proof lies with you. Do you have any evidence for its continuation?
- What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
Wow! How to wrap three completely different questions up into one.
The first two of course can be easily answered. We don't need to account for them; you do. Again there is the attempt to shift the burden which has started to become almost a signature technique and which raises serious questions of sincerity in my mind.
Given that the diverse accounts of the 'empty tomb' and the 'resurrection' in your only source are almost hilariously muddled and contradictory I suspect I understand your motive for trying to divest yourself of the burden of proof. There can surely be little doubt that the entire thing is mythical and was not witnessed by those who purported to be reporting it, as this blog shows: Jesus Is Risen - And Pigs Can Fly!
Which just leaves the growth of the church to deal with:
Quite simply, it was luck. Had Emperor Constantine chosen Mithraism from amongst the various competing superstitions as the official state religion in his declining empire in culture-shock at the barbarian hoards over-running it from the north, you would doubtless now be defending the myth of Mithra and demanding we answer your questions in terms of Mithraic mythology.
Had the Gnostics or Cathars become predominant early on you would now be portraying Jesus as a messenger come to tell us how to avoid the physical world Satan had created and join the true god in a spiritual realm by observance of secret rites and rituals with 'the knowledge' and you would be quoting scripture to support your case.
Had the Germanic tribes who invaded the collapsing Roman Empire remained pagan you would now be exhorting us to worship Wotan, Thor and the Norse Pantheon with doubtless equal certainty and dogmatism and religious apologists would have constructed fanciful theological arguments conclusively 'proving' the existence of these gods.
Had you been born in Japan you would doubtless be extolling the virtues of Shintoism and worship of the Sun Emperor. Born in India you would be pushing Lord Rama or Ganash or Khali on us. If born in Mecca you would have no doubt at all that Mohammed was the Prophet of Allah and that women should only appear in public covered head to toe, should be beaten for driving a car and stoned to death if raped. And you would be affronted that people question Mohammed's probity and would probably be urging Jehad on the infidels.
The Christian Church grew and diversified in Europe because it was given a flying start with Constantine's 'official' conversion - though he hedged his bets. It was given a further boost when the Gothic tribes, in an attempt to make Aleric look like a Roman Emperor, adopted it. Having captured the power-bases it was able to suppress many of the alternatives, and the alternative sects which early Christianity had already spawned, and so, in the West, Rome was able to predominate. It was not so in the East, where other forms of Christianity such as Orthodox, Maronite, Coptic, Armenian and other sects had grown up in the major regional centres of the old Roman Empire and each went their separate ways, only to be swept aside by advancing Islam when the vast majority of the people were so unconvinced, even in Jerusalem, that they converted to Islam en masse. Presumably, one dogmatic superstition was pretty much like another. There was work for an ambitious young lad in the army spreading the love of Allah and the Mosques gave out food!
There is no mystery in the growth of the Christian churches. What is mysterious is why there are so many of them, especially given the story in the Christian Bible of Jesus prophesying that his church (singular) would be built on the rock of Peter and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. The mystery is why we have so many, almost like grains of sand with some 30,000 different Christian sects throughout the world. Was Jesus a false prophet and a poor judge of character in choosing Peter or was he just a foolish man who built his house on sand? Whatever, clearly here is a biblical prophesy which monumentally failed.
By the way, Christianity is not, and has never been, a majority religion on a world-wide scale. Like all other religions, is was, until recent history, a local, regional religion. It just got lucky. It is still a minority and regional religion which depends for its continuing existence on capturing its members when young, gullible, and not having any say in the matter.
I'm willing to lay a small bet that you have the same version of the same religion as your parents. If so, you might like to ponder on the significance of that.
There just remains one final point: throughout these questions there is an implicit assumption that, if there is something science can't explain, the only possible alternative explanation is the Christian god. Exactly the same false dichotomy fallacy is used by supporters of other gods and other religions.
Do you not feel embarrassed at needing to use this intellectually dishonest tactic which is no more an argument for your god than it is for any other and which relies entirely on the parochial ignorance of its targets to work? Why have you not presented a single scrap of evidence for your preferred god and explained why it can only be used in support of your god?
Do you not have any?
You might like to accept my challenge at Why Should I Not Be An Atheist?
As of this time, the only response from Dr Saunders has been this exchange on Twitter. Remember, his original claim, and the specific one that this blog addresses, was:
I am not, in posting these, saying that atheists have no answers to them, only that as yet in over forty years of discussion with them I am yet to hear any good ones
Readers might like to speculate on the sincerity of that claim if this is how Dr Saunders waves aside detailed answers.
[Update] Dr peter Saunders is now pimping this blog as a relpy.
The actual author is anonymous and there is no right to reply. Dr Saunders has not, either on this blog, or on the blog to which this blog is a reply, mentioned this reply.
Readers might like to speculate on the integrity of someone who includes ad hominem attacks in a blog but fails to inform the victim of those attacks or allow them the right to reply.
So, a two further questions now for Dr Saunders:
- Do you endorse the views expressed in the blog entitled Questions That One Atheist Could Not Answer and, if so, should I take this as your definitive reply to by my blog?
- If not, when do you intend to produce you own reply?