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Still Arguing

Well, I don't have any new entries this week, either. I got too caught up in that same comment thread on The Chronicle of Higher Education as last week, and spent too much time leaving comments there. I think I'm suffering from SIWOTI Syndrome. Like last week, if you're really interested in reading something by me this week, I've included my comments below the fold.

For reference, the previous entry where I posted comments from this thread is available here:
Arguing About Religion On Another Site


I didn't get a chance to respond before the 3 day weekend, so here's my late response now.

I don't want to belabor the point on stealing, but you still haven't really responded to it satisfactorily. You've called it a moral imperative, but don't provide any justification for why. I may be swayed by your argument, but you haven't presented one, yet.

The other examples you listed can be accounted for by maximizing good/minimizing harm. You stated that "downloading music off the Internet will not harm the original musician and that is especially true if you would never have paid for the music under any circumstances." Pirated downloads are lost revenue for the musician/company. That's why it's stealing, and why it's morally wrong. If you wouldn't have actually paid to listen to it if it wasn't available for free, that does make it a bit more like the armageddon stealing scenario you invented above, but I don't think it's quite the same, especially in the real world. Why would you take the time to download the song if you didn't have some interest in it? And if you do have some interest in it, then you're really just trying to get out of paying.

Cheating also causes harm. Aside from the breach of trust during the test itself, you are now misrepresenting yourself to future employers, who have an expectation that your grades represent a certain mastery of material. You are also hurting fellow students by cheapening the degree (if this guy got a B from such and such university and has such a piss poor understanding of the material, why should I hire this other guy from that school who got the same grades?)

You've stated several times that the existence of gods is an opinion. This may be semantics, but I disagree. Gods either exist or they don't. It's a fact one way or the other. We may not be able to reliably determine the truth, but that doesn't make it an opinion.

You've also stated, that if two people have the same moral system, and the only difference between them is that one believes in a judgmental god while the other doesn't, then the believer will probably behave better because of the incentives. I guess I finally see your point, but when does this actually apply? This is similar to what Gowexo said in comment 177, but if a person believes in a judgmental deity, they don't get to pick any old moral system that they want. They can't just say that they personally think an action is right or wrong. They have to go by what the deity will reward or punish for. This is why I brought up the 'opinion' point above. We don't define reality with wishful thinking. If a deity did exist, and if the deity did reward and punish certain actions, then we ought to try to truly understand the deity's criteria for judgment.

Of course, it goes without saying (and I'm not saying this is your position, just clarifying for anyone else still following this thread), that whether or not belief in a deity makes people behave better or worse says nothing about the actual existence of the deity. Children may behave better around Christmas time because of their belief in Santa Claus, but it doesn't make Santa any more real.

Several times, you've said something to the effect that a god can neither be proven nor disproven, so it's perfectly reasonable to believe in a particular god (in your case, Yahweh). From your response to people bringing up the FSM (which was originally intended as a mockery of teaching Intelligent Design in schools, not necessarily religion in general), I take it you don't think Russell's Teapot is a good example of why lack of evidence is a good reason to doubt the existence of something. So, I'm curious about your take on other mythological beings, like fairies and leprechauns. These are not inventions intended to make religion look silly, but things many people have sincerely believed in. Since they're magical creatures, similar arguments that people use for gods can be made about why there's no strong evidence for them (they can use their magic to hide themselves, make the evidence disappear, etc). Do you take a similar agnostic stance on their existence, or do you dismiss these beings as products of our imagination? If you do dismiss them as imaginary, what is your justification for the different treatment of a deity?


zagros already responded to your post pretty well, but I'll add to it. You wrote, "based on the evidence and the numbers that I have seen, it seems that one must have as much faith to believe that life formed from a primordial soup, as to believe that life was formed by the result of an intelligent design, i.e. by a creator."

Concerning the faith part, and assuming that you're talking strictly about abiogenesis (not evolution), I can almost see your point. We don't know exactly how life got started on this planet. However, I wouldn't call it faith to expect that we'll discover a non-supernatural explanation for it, any more so than I'd call it faith to expect that politicians will lie in the next round of campaigning. I can't see into the future, so I can't say with 100% absolute certainty that future politicians will lie, but given their past performance, I'd say it's a pretty safe bet. Similarly for the history of this planet, we have a decent idea of how it was formed naturally over 4 billion years ago, and we have a really good understanding of how the life on it evolved naturally from several billion years ago to the present. There's a gap in our understanding between the formation of the planet and once life was already going strong and evolving, but I don't see any reason to jump to expecting that a supernatural cause will be required to explain that period, especially if you consider everything zagros wrote about in his response to you.

I don't doubt your sincerity when you wrote that you doubted abiogenesis "based on the evidence and the numbers that [you] have seen", but I'd wager that's because of how poorly evolution and abiogensis are taught in many schools, and how many anti-science organizations there are that spread misinformation (such as Answers in Genesis or the Discovery Institute). The Talk Origins website is a great place to learn about this, along with rebuttals to many of the common anti-science arguments. A couple of really good books that discuss evolution in general and touch a bit on abiogenesis are Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald Prothero, and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer. The former focuses mostly on the fossil evidence for universal common descent, while the latter is more of an explanation for the theories describing evolution.


I'm sorry. I hit the submit button before refreshing one more time and seeing your latest comment. Your comment at 201 seems to be implying that you think the intelligent designer was non-supernatural, while in my response I assumed you meant a supernatural intelligent designer. After thinking about it a bit, though, I don't think there's much to change. We still understand the formation of the planet and the subsequent evolution of life without needing to invoke an outside intelligence, whether it's a deity or advanced aliens. I don't think there's any reason to suspect that the initial start of life required an outside intelligence, either.


Regarding your arguments from authority for ID, zagros has already provided a link to Richard Dawkins' own site showing that Dawkins doesn't support ID. The 'documentary' you've cited, Expelled, is really little more than propaganda. The interview with Dawkins was edited dishonestly in such a way as to misrepresent his actual position. I've already written a review of Expelled on my own blog, if you're interested in reading more of my opinion of the movie, but I won't go on about it here.

You also cited Isaac Newton as a supporter of Intelligent Design. As Zagros already pointed out - who cares? Newton died in 1727, while Darwin and Wallace didn't publicly present the theory of natural selection until 1858. Newton may have been a genius, but he was limited to the knowledge of his time. Besides, would you use Newton's belief in alchemy to suggest that the Philosopher's Stone is real and can change lead into gold?

You wrote, "Regarding entropy, since no one is able to actually place a bound on the size of the universe (and as some believe there are universes outside our universe), how can one possibly establish the definition of a "closed system"? But where does one draw the boundary for a closed system when the universe is at the same time both infinite and infinitesimal?"

Defining open and closed systems is something people do all the time. We can't model the entire universe every time we want to calculate how different things interact, so we have to define a system that covers just enough to accurately predict what we're interested in. Defining the system is largely a matter of convenience and what makes sense. For example, if you were interested in the short term heat transfer between an ice cube and water in a well insulated thermos, you could reasonably approximate that as a closed system, because heat transfer to the outside world would have a negligible impact on what actually happens. However, if you're interested in studying something like global climate, and you want to define your system as just the Earth and it's atmosphere, you'd have to define it as an open system, to account for the energy coming in from the Sun, and the energy being radiated off into space. If you expanded your system further to the solar system, then you probably could make it a closed system.

So, as far as evolution is concerned, there's no problem in how you define the systems. If you look at the solar system as a closed system, any local decrease in entropy on Earth is more than made up for by the increase of entropy in the sun. On a smaller scale, if you treat an organism as an open system, any local decrease in entropy in the organism's gametes (which is where the raw material for natural selection comes from, after all), is accounted for by the energy the organism gets from food. Look at it another way. If the second law of thermodynamics said there could never be any local decreases of entropy ever, it would be impossible for any of us to exist, since we grew from single cells into full adults, which definitely required a decrease in entropy to organize all the raw materials into us.

You went on to write, "The fact is, entropy does not seem to be a law at all. It is more, as I put it, a 'pattern'. "

Of course entropy is not a law. It's a property of matter. Just like gravity isn't a law, but a force. Law's are what describe these phenomena. The second law of thermodynamics describes entropy, and it has been backed up experimentally over and over again.

I've written more about entropy on my own blog, as well, if you're interested in reading more of what I've said about that.

On the topic of scientists being close minded to intelligent design because they want to deny a creator, I'll quote a section of that review of Expelled that I linked to above. "Science of any stripe is secular, not atheistic. Meteorology predicts weather without resorting to divine intervention, and the germ theory of disease doesn't include demonic possession. Yet most people don't accuse those branches of science as being atheistic. Why, when looking at how life changes over time, is it all of a sudden atheistic to describe it naturally? It's not. It's just following the evidence."


I have one more question. In one of my previous comments, I mentioned a few good resources for understanding evolution. I don't expect that you'd rush off to the bookstore or library based on a suggestion from a stranger, but have you bothered to look at the Talk Origins website? It really is pretty good, especially at addressing the misconceptions and misinformation that abound regarding evolution.

Follow Up: I've reposted the rest of my comments from this comment thread.
Done Arguing

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