Theistic evolution (and other things)

The following is [nearly] copied directly from a conversation I had on Facebook with a friend, Matt. At one point about halfway through the conversation another friend, Chuck, joined in for a short while. The conversation started with a quote by a hypocritical “Christian” and then moved quickly to evolution, the (in)errancy of the Bible, historical Jesus, and finally ended with a nice little “agree to disagree” moment. The whole thing began when I posted a quote:

“I have a compelling reason to believe in God. My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith. My wife and children believe in God… abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails.”

-Carl Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution

Matt
Haven’t read much on theistic evolutionism. I don’t think its possible.

Dave
Considering the Christian god is “perfect,” why couldn’t he have created life, which then evolved? Through god, anything is possible (they say).

Don’t forget that evolution (and its theory) says nothing about the origin of life. Only about how life adapted and evolved after it originated. The origins of life are theorized in abiogenesis.

Matt
Well that isn’t the account in genesis. God created everything fully mature. New with the appearance of age. Jesus did the same when he turned water into wine. I am curious though… I can accept micro evolution. What are your thoughts on separating micro and macro evolution?

Dave
I think evolution is evolution. Micro- and macro- just measure it on different scales. Here’s a pretty neat explanation of how it works:

Image via thinkatheist.com

Matt
That’s what I anticipated. However I think you can separate the two. We see changes in frogs and what not. But the single cell to man theory I have issues with. New information in the genome through random unguided chance mutations just doesn’t seem like a plausible sound enough theory for the origin of intelligent life.

Dave
Given billions of years, why not? Remember a species may undergo many (like, millions) of random mutations that don’t work in favor of its survival, and those afflicted with such mutations either die out or remain “neutral” (the mutation is neither beneficial nor detrimental to its survival). But one in a million random mutations might be beneficial to the point where that species is now more able to procreate and survive.

So the species passes that mutation on to its offspring, who then procreate and thrive. A million mutations later, and another generation is that much more capable of survival. One won’t be able to pinpoint the exact generation in which speciation occurs, but it gets to the point where generation X+n is no longer able to breed with generation X.

The original species may still even exist – those which did not mutate beneficially may still be thriving in their own particular niche just fine.

An analogy:
Give a monkey a computer with a keyboard and word processor, then let it bang away. What are the odds it will randomly type out Shakespeare’s Hamlet in its entirety? Pretty slim.

But reprogram the processor so that every time the monkey randomly hits a letter in its proper place, the letter is saved in its position. Eventually, the monkey WILL have “randomly” banged out Hamlet in the word processor.

Matt
I can appreciate the theory. It does however boil down to a few pre-suppositions. Is the universe billions of years old? Were these primordial conditions exactly right to produce by chance those amino acids then so on and so forth? I mean it does make sense given bookoos of time and some very particular conditions, but it doesn’t account for some of the immensely complex organisms we see today. Like the bombardier beetle, the circulatory system of giraffes. Butterflies metamorphosis over weeks not years. The chances of life producing from nothing is not one in some very very large number, its zero.

The question is; who re-programmed [the hypothetical word processor]?

Dave
Again, evolution does not account for the origin of life, nor does it attempt to – that’s abiogenesis.

As to “who” programmed it, that goes back to the theory of natural selection. A species will retain a mutation (random pounding of keys) that is beneficial (landing in the right position) to its survival.

Funny you mentioned giraffes, though, since they have within them my favorite evolutionary “mistake.” Research their laryngeal nerve.

Matt
I remember. You had mentioned it previously.

Are you familiar with the 747 gambit? Also what are your thoughts on the anthropic principle?

Dave
Regarding the “Ultimate Boeing 747” I’ll remind you that complexity won’t arise out of nothing, or suddenly, but rather in tiny parts at a time and over long periods of time.

Regarding the anthropic principle, I’ll refer you to Douglas Adams‘ “puddle analogy.”

…imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

Chuck
Keep in mind when were talking about the origin of life describing it in years doesn’t do justice. Single cell organisms can reproduce asexually, which means one organism could reproduce many many times in a year plus how many times it’s offspring reproduce. So yeah at the birthrate of mammals evolution happens slow. But with more primitive life forms a change could happen more rapidly. More keys mashed per year if you will.

Matt
So in observing asexual single cell reproductive cycles, have we seen, at any rate, mutations occur that benefit the organism’s ability to survive?

Also, if I may, returning to the original topic of why couldn’t God use evolution in the creation process, its seems to me that this ideology compromises Biblical inerrancy. This also suggests that God requires long periods of time to accomplish his creative process. If that were the case then I think the Genesis account would reflect that. Some might argue that the Hebraic lexicon only offers vague idioms for durations of time. While the Hebrew word for “day” could mean any period of time, it is important to know that this is true unless it is annotated by a number. So when we observe the creation account in Genesis, we must accept it as a literal six day creation week. Most importantly, coming from the Christian perspective, Jesus tells us that we must accept the teachings of Moses since it is the Word and Jesus is the Word. Anyways, that’s why one cannot be a Christian and subscribe to the ideologies of metaphysical naturalism.

Dave
You said: “So in observing asexual single cell reproductive cycles, have we seen, at any rate, mutations occur that benefit the organism’s ability to survive?”

Yes. Check out the Lenski E. coli long-term evolution experiment.

Chuck
It may not be single celled organisims but… there was a type or scale or fungus that infects a widely grown crop that developed immunity to to the main pesticide used to treat it within a human lifetime. It happend like ten years ago so I dont remember the specifics…

Dave
Re: inerrant Bible vs. evolution

Knowing that I’m atheist and consider the whole book a bunch of baloney, it may be a little more difficult to take what I’m about to say seriously, but I’m going to give this whole “apologetic” thing a shot. Here goes.

Is it not possible to see see the Bible as just a book? Perhaps it is inspired by the word of god. Maybe he even had a hand in writing some parts of it. But perhaps some of it really was just a recollection of stories that had been passed down verbally through many generations.

Instead of reading Lev. 11:20 as an outright error (I, personally, see it as one) try and see it as a misinterpretation. Knowing how geology works, we can essentially disprove a worldwide flood. So what if the flood story was just an exaggeration to try and get the point across that god means business?

With misinterpretations and exaggerations in mind, try to read Genesis in a similar light. Sure, maybe god created the world; maybe bugs and water and light and people all came at separate times (and they most certainly did!) but maybe the ordering of the story is just to give you the general idea: god did it, more or less like this.

The Bible was, after all, written by humans; not by superhumans. Perhaps they heard voices that told them what to say, but if everyone were hearing the same voice we would expect the Gospels to agree with each other 100%. Fun fact: they don’t. Perhaps because of misinterpretations and exaggerations.

If the Bible is read with more of an open mind and while considering the fact that stories can be misinterpreted or exaggerated and languages can be mistranslated, it wouldn’t be all that inconceivable to suggest that god could have “guided” the evolution process with his hand. Maybe the beneficial mutations were his idea to begin with.

Matt
Trees bearing fruit after their own kind. Like I said, micro evolutionary processes are evident and as far as I am concerned totally Biblical. Concerning the gospels, In a court of law, if all of the witnesses to a murder all had the exact same story, they would be accused of conspiring and their testimony would be thrown out. Luke accounts for one blind man healed by Jesus while Matthew accounts for two. Luke’s account was concerned with only the one because the man Jesus healed became a disciple. The argument you present lies in the realm of legalism, and Jesus railed against the pharasees for just this reason. Fun fact: the life, death, and even the resurection of Jesus are safely preserved as historical fact. Even His enemies admit to these things (except the muslims). And as far as mis-translations go, we literally have over 25,000 manuscript documents to validate the accuracy of the New Testament translations.

Dave
The Bible is riddled not with different recounts of the same story, but with outright contradictions. In the court of the law, that wouldn’t fly. In the New Testament specifically, Matthew and Luke give us two different people as Jesus’ paternal grandfather, and say that Jesus was descended from both of David’s sons (Solomon and Nathan). If one of those is true, both cannot be true. A person cannot have two biological fathers.

The Gospels tell us of Jesus sending out his disciples and he gives them specific instructions which included what they can or can not take with them. Are the disciples allowed to bring a staff? Mark says yes. Luke says no. That may be an insignificant detail, but again both cannot be true, therefore the Bible (at the very least, THAT part of the Bible) cannot be taken literally.

I think you and I can both agree that Jesus’ crucifixion was kind of a big deal, and we can probably both agree that the details are somewhat important. Jesus wore a crown of thorns. He was flogged. He carried his cross. He was nailed to the cross. All in all, he was treated pretty badly here. But let’s go back to the part about Jesus carrying the cross. Only one of the Gospels actually say that happened: John. The rest say Simon is the one who carried the cross. It’s commonly accepted that Jesus carried it until they met Simon, but that is nothing but speculation and assumption, as none of the Gospels tell us both men carried the cross. If the Bible is inerrant, there is no room for assumptions. If any of the Gospels are right, I would go with the safe bet of Simon carrying the cross (three against one, after all) but it is therefore logically impossible for John to have been correct.

I can list more contradictions for you if you’d like, since the Bible is teeming with them, but for now and for this discussion I think I’ve made my point well enough. So I move on.

You said “the life, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus are safely preserved as historical fact.” This is simply not true, and it’s unfair for you to use it in this debate. No proof whatsoever exists of an historical Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Not one historian (outside the Bible, which only Christians count as “proof”) from Jesus’ time ever wrote about him. Why is that? Miracles would have been a big deal, I imagine. It wasn’t until 70 years after Jesus had died that the first Gospel was written. Some people point to Josephus as an historian who wrote about Jesus, but it’s been proven that Josephus’ writings which pertained to Jesus were forgeries.

As even an atheist like I will admit, a lack of evidence of existence is not evidence for nonexistence, but you simply cannot state something is a fact when no evidence supporting it exists. The only “evidence” you could possibly use is the Bible, but even now we’re debating over its validity. To use it as proof is to assume we both accept it as valid.

For the record, the Muslim Qur’an tells us Jesus (“the messiah”) was born of a virgin, performed miracles, ascended into Heaven in bodily form (but not that he was crucified), and will return to earth on Judgment Day.

Matt
Look, I do want to be fair. Unfortunately, for the literary critic of the New Testament, there are several extrabiblical references and authorities to Jesus. To name a few secular sources: Cornelius Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, and Pliny the Younger. Not to mention Jewish references such as the Babylonian Talmud. As Josh McDowell puts it “Similar to the secular references, the ones found in ancient Jewish sources are unfriendly toward Christianity’s founder, followers and beliefs. For this reason their attestation to events surrounding Jesus’ life are valuable testimony to the historicity of these events.” If you would like to or are at all interested in furthering your understanding of apologetics, the I would refer you first to Josh McDowell’s book “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict.” As far as the Qur’an is concerned, I have my reasons for rejecting It as Divinely inspired and that should be reserved for another discussion.

Dave
Pliny the Younger: his “references” were all Christians themselves, so any accounts are biased. He was born in 62 CE anyway, so his “word” is nothing but hearsay, being he wasn’t even born ’til after Jesus would have died.

Tacitus: Born after Pliny the Younger. Again, not an eyewitness account. He didn’t even cite his sources.

Suetonius: Born after Tacitus. Only ever mentions the common name “Chrestus” and never refers to an earthly Jesus.

Talmud: Never actually mentions Jesus. Refers to “Yeshu,” who was a disciple of Jehoshua Ben-Perachia, who existed more than a century before Jesus (or it refers to Yeshu ben Pandera, who was a teacher in the 2nd century).

Thallus: Doesn’t mention Jesus – only the darkening of the sky at the time of his alleged crucifixion. The validity of his writings is called into question, however, when one considers that neither Pliny the Elder nor Seneca (easily the two most contemporary scientists at the time) mentioned the “eclipse.” The two scientists were known for researching and writing about all the known geological and astrological phenomena.

There are no eye-witness accounts of Jesus. None. Anything said about him after the fact is hearsay.

For the record, I fully understand that none of this disproves an historical Jesus. That isn’t what I’m trying to do. God and Jesus cannot be proven to exist or not exist (actually, they could be proven to exist but so far nobody’s managed to do it). An inerrant or errant Bible, however, is very easy to prove. A worldwide flood 6,000 years ago, for example, would have left very specific geological evidence, yet none exists. In this case the nonexistence of evidence works as evidence for nonexistence.

So, back to the very original point (actually, the original post was just a quote I found amusing in its hypocrisy), accepting the Bible as errant does not necessarily make one unChristian, but it opens the door for acceptance of reality.

The reality is this: evolution has occurred on a massive scale and continues to occur. The earth is billions of years old. God may or may not still exist and have had something to do with the aforementioned known facts.

Matt
Well, it certainly delights me to see that you at least admit to the possibility of God’s existence. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that makes you an agnostic. Let me assure you sir, God is certainly real and you can know and interact with Him right now. That is the most powerfull evidence available. Nonetheless it is not my place to make God known to you, its His. Religion is not all its cracked up to be.

Dave
Technically, I’m agnostic. Technically, I’m also atheist. Gnosticism/Agnosticism has to do with knowing. Theism/Atheism has to do with believing.

I don’t know whether there’s a god or not (agnostic) but I don’t believe there is (atheist).

Sources I used:
Did Jesus exist? (nobeliefs.com)
Secular References to Jesus: Thallus
(tektonics.org)
Thallus: an Analysis (infidels.org)

god, not God

Any time I debate somebody about the existence of the supernatural (which, admittedly, isn’t very often – I tend to keep my debates online only) they always seem to have reasons why they believe in a god and why I should too. Nobody has ever given me a convincing argument, obviously, but that’s not the point here. What I find amusing is that nobody has ever argued with me in favor of their god.

You can tell me all you want that evolution is a hoax and we were created. You might even give me “evidence” that we were created (you can’t – I’m just sayin’). But your “evidence” doesn’t support a theory of creation by your god. Just by a god. Not even necessarily by a god, but by some supernatural force. You’ve provided me with no argument whatsoever why the particular god you believe in must have been the one who created us.

To me, no religion makes sense. But deism makes far more sense than any organized religion. “There is something out there that started all this, but I won’t presume I know any more about it than that.”

There is no thought or reason behind believing in one god but disbelieving in all others, there is especially no reason behind choosing a particular god over others, and frankly I find the notion of choosing a god to believe in quite silly anyway.

Bin Laden’s Virgins

The likelihood that Osama bin Laden is currently philandering with seventy-two maidens with heaving breasts in a giant bathtub full of wine is exactly the same as the likelihood that the Christian Heaven exists.

Just sayin’.

The Shadow of the Past (an excerpt)

Cover of "THE END OF FAITH: RELIGION, TER...

Cover via Amazon

Finding ourselves in a universe that seems bent upon destroying us, we quickly discover, both as individuals and as societies, that it is a good thing to understand the forces arrayed against us. And so it is that every human being comes to desire genuine knowledge about the world. This has always posed a special problem for religion, because every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence. In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This put the “leap” in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.

What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can’t make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to drive our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there’s that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these truths, if they are indeed true? By reading the Bible? Our tour of the shelves will deliver similar pearls from antiquity – like the “fact” that Isis, the goddess of fertility, sports an impressive pair of cow horns. Reading further, we will learn that Thor carries a hammer and that Marduk’s sacred animals are horses, dogs, and a dragon with a forked tongue. Whom shall we give top billing in our resurrected world? Yahweh or Shiva? And when will we want to relearn that premarital sex is a sin? Or that adulteresses should be stoned to death? Or that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception? And what will we think of those curious people who begin proclaiming that one of our books is distinct from all others in that it was actually written by the Creator of the universe?

There are undoubtedly spiritual truths that we would want to relearn – once we manage to feed and clothe ourselves – and these are truths that we have learned imperfectly in our present state. How is it possible, for instance, to overcome one’s fear and inwardness and simply love other human beings? Assume for the moment, that such a process of personal transformation exists and that there is something worth knowing about it; there is, in other words, some skill, or discipline, or conceptual understanding, or dietary supplement that allows for the reliable transformation of fearful, hateful, or indifferent persons into loving ones. If so, we should be positively desperate to know about it. There may even be a few biblical passages that would be useful in this regard – but as for whole rafts of untestable doctrines, clearly there would be no reasonable basis to take them up again. The Bible and Koran, it seems certain, would find themselves respectfully shelved next to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions found in ancient literature – to say nothing of killing and dying for them – would be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now?

Many have observed that religion, by lending meaning to human life, permits communities (at least those united under a single faith) to cohere. Historically this is true, and on this score religion is to be credited as much for wars of conquest as for feast days and brotherly love. But in its effect upon the modern world – a world already united, at least potentially, by economic, environmental, political, and epidemiological necessity – religious ideology is dangerously retrograde. Our past is not sacred for being past, and there is much that is behind us that we are struggling to keep behind us, and to which, it is to be hoped, we could never return with a clear conscience: the divine right of kings, feudalism, the caste system, slavery, political executions, forced castration, vivisection, bearbaiting, honorable duels, chastity belts, trial by ordeal, child labor, human and animal sacrifice, the stoning of heretics, cannibalism, sodomy laws, taboos against contraception, human radiation experiments – the list is nearly endless, and if it were extended indefinitely, the proportion of abuses for which religion could be found directly responsible is likely to remain undiminished. In fact, almost every indignity just mentioned can be attributed to an insufficient taste for evidence, to an uncritical faith in one dogma or another. The idea, therefore, that religious faith is somehow a sacred human convention – distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and by the paucity of its evidence – is really too great a monstrosity to be appreciated in all its glory. Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity – a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible. When foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past.

Sam Harris, The End of Faith

1 May, 2011 – Osama bin Laden dead

So here I was, ready to put up a pre-written post for today. But then we had to go and kill Osama bin Laden, making just about anything not relating to that story pretty much irrelevant. Almost everything that’s needed to be said on this subject has already been covered by plenty of news stations and re-bloggers, so I’ll be keeping it short and focusing only on opinion. But now I’m torn on what I should say on the topic, so I’ll start with the obvious: were it not for Islam, Osama bin Laden would not have committed his atrocities.

A bold statement, I know. I could have just said that without Islamic fundamentalism his crimes would not have been committed, but I prefer to go a little deeper by saying that Islam is the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. Heck, I could go even deeper and say that without religious thought, Islam would not exist, would not create fundamentalism, would not have spawned al Qaeda and the Taliban, would not have caused people to become so engrossed in their religion that they would be so willing to murder thousands of people in the name of their god.

One cannot take the stance of the apologist in this situation and say “well, not all Muslims are fundamentalists.” While technically true, you are employing the “No true Scotsman” fallacy: no true Muslim/Christian/believer would commit such atrocities. I bet the jihadists would beg to differ – perhaps to them, no true Muslim would allow all of us infidels to live. When a holy book is so open to interpretation one cannot claim misinterpretation. When read into just so, a holy book and its texts within can be taken to mean whatever the reader can imagine.

With that cleared up, let’s move on to the part where I’m not really sure what to think. This is, of course, in regards to his death. I’ll just throw this out right now: I’m a pacifist. I don’t buy into the “an eye for an eye” philosophy. I do believe wrongdoing should be met with punishment, but a murderer need not be murdered in order for justice to be had. Yes, the world will absolutely be a better place now that Osama bin Laden won’t personally or physically be influencing anything that happens. But was his terrorist faction really so weak that his lasting influence will not reign over them still? He commanded such respect from his followers, that I very much doubt they will simply lay down their arms to us in surrender. If anything, we may expect them to be re-energized now that they have their ultimate martyr.

So what should we have done? I really don’t know. That’s why I’m torn. Had he been captured alive, his followers would surely go to whatever measures necessary to have him released, or to release him themselves. But the killing of one [albeit very guilty] man does not suddenly bring the thousands back to life for whose deaths he was responsible, nor does it make their deaths any less tragic or painful.

Someone said, “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

EDIT: I’m aware that Osama bin Laden went down fighting; that our Navy SEALs didn’t really have a choice as to whether or not they should kill him. In fact, it was reported that they would have rather taken him alive. What I meant to express before is that I don’t know whether I think it would have been better if they’d managed to catch him alive. He’d be executed anyway, so I suppose that doesn’t really matter. What I disagree with is all the celebration of his death. I think it’s ridiculous, and perhaps a bit sad, that people are singing and dancing and laughing at his death. He was a monster, there’s no doubt about that, and perhaps he even deserved to die, but no death warrants celebration.