A Catholic Asks Questions; An Atheist Responds

We received a letter from a woman with these 10 questions. Her husband is an atheist and she wanted more information than he was able to provide to her, so they thought they’d consult us. Here are her questions and my responses:

1) If we are only a bunch of cells without a soul, how are the eyes so full of expression? Wouldn’t the eyes be without expression if they’re a bunch of cells grouped together?
 
According to Catholicism, dogs don’t have souls either, but anyone who has ever had a pet dog knows that dogs have expression in their eyes, so we can deduce that souls and expressive eyes are independent. I would argue that humans don’t have souls either, but that’s another question. In any case, scientists know how expressiveness came about in animals (including ourselves): Through evolution. Much research has been done in this area. Animals that are cooperative and live in groups (e.g. dogs, humans, chimps, etc) have expressive faces and expressive voices or other means of communicating; animals that are not cooperative tend not to be expressive in this way because they have no need for it. Chimps and bonobos and humans, as well as our more-recent evolutionary ancestors, lack hair on our faces because natural selection favored the ability for us to make out and respond in kind to each other’s facial expressions more easily. There is PLENTY of research on this; if you’d like some academic recommendations, please let me know.
 
2) If we weren’t designed/created then how do the cells know where to go and what to do?
 
The same way that leaves “know” to fall to the ground instead of floating upward into space, and the same way that water “knows” to take the path of least resistance as it flows. Matter/energy (the stuff that makes up everything) follows very simple rules of operation, which is studied under the label of physics. Cells have DNA, and DNA is just a type of chemical that interacts with other chemicals and causes natural reactions. It’s a very complex chemical but it doesn’t do anything supernatural, just complicated. How DNA got to be so complicated is a very big question, but it’s also one scientists have answered, and it’s the same answer as the previous question: evolution. There are two books I’d recommend on this; one is “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, and the other is “The Greatest Show on Earth” by the same author.
 
3) Do you think it is possible that God created the dinosaurs, etc? Then changed his mind, big bang theory was His idea?
 
First off, which god? There are millions of gods in all the different religions of the world, and we have no reason to favor the Abrahamic god over any of the other creator gods, just because we happen to have been brought up in the United States. As far as dinosaurs and the Big Bang, it’s possible that some god made the dinosaurs, although I doubt it, because again scientists have solved the mystery about where they came from and how we ended up with such a variety of them, and again that’s just evolution. This is also covered very well in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

4) In one way or another each of us seeks to understand the concept of life. Could it be possible that we don’t know everything? That what we think we know is wrong? None of us were there at creation/big bang, to witness anything.

I think it’s pretty clear that we don’t know everything! If we did, there would be no need to have scientists and no need for further research in any field. I don’t know anyone who claims that we know everything. There are some things we believe that we could be wrong about, and some things that we realistically can’t. For example, 1+1=2. We will never be wrong about that because Whitehead and Russell proved that it’s true. Definitions like “a bachelor is unmarried” will never turn out to be wrong, as another example. But the whole purpose of science is to refine our beliefs so that we get closer and closer to the truth. The whole process of science is expressly trying to prove yourself wrong. You make a hypothesis and then look for ways to test it in order to disprove it. If you can’t disprove it after trying your best, you say, “I was unable to reject my hypothesis,” and then you publish your results and method so that others can take a crack at it. But you never *accept* your hypothesis as true in science, since science is an inductive pursuit. You either 1) reject or 2) fail to reject your hypothesis. We could always be wrong about anything in science. I do think that for many things in science, though, we’ve settled the question satisfactorily (e.g. the Earth orbits the sun, natural selection explains evolution, etc).
 
As far as saying none of us were there to witness the origin of the universe… Being an eyewitness to something is actually a pretty poor way of determining what happened. Nobody in a courtroom would ever be convicted for murder if the only evidence were eyewitness evidence. It’s just too unreliable. You have to have some physical evidence: A video recording from an ATM across the street, a murder weapon, DNA evidence, etc. People’s memories are not nearly as reliable as they think they are, and people can be very easily confused about what they think they saw. If eyewitness testimony were trustworthy, magic shows would take on a whole different meaning. No one really believes that a woman is sawn in half and then put back together, despite seeing it with their own eyes. We know (correctly) to be more skeptical than that. If we witness something improbable, our first thought should be to be skeptical of what we saw, not to conclude it was magic (or a miracle).
 
It’s true that we don’t have eyewitness evidence of the origin of the universe. But, we have something better. We have physical evidence of how it happened—LOTS of it, and the Big Bang is so far un-rejected as the best explanation we have, and it has further been refined many times and continues to be refined. For a good explanation of how the universe originated, I recommend “A Brief History of Time” and “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and “A Universe from Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss.

5) If you had to believe in something, wouldn’t you rather believe in someone who cares for you? (This one really has him stumped to respond)

I’d rather believe what’s true! But more importantly, what I’d rather believe is not only irrelevant but inconsequential—the universe operates the same way regardless of what I believe about it. It makes no difference to the universe. The universe is just matter and energy following observed patterns, or as we call them, laws of nature. It’s a nice thought that someone cares about you, but if there’s no evidence of that, it’s not reassuring to me, because deep down I would know I don’t really believe it. It’s like Santa Claus—it might be a nice story for kids, but once you know the truth about it, you can’t force yourself to go back to believing it. It might be nice to believe that you’ll be rewarded for doing good and that the mean kids who teased you will get coal, etc. But it’s ultimately just a story. We humans are storytelling creatures and these things do have immense value as far as appreciation of our lives and culture, but our civilization has advanced to the point now that we have technology, combined with modern research methods, that allow us to find the real answers to these questions, answers that fit the evidence. To quote Bertrand Russell, “Do not let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe, but look only and solely at what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out.”
 
6) What if all the contradictions between religion and non-religion were ok? Why do they have to make sense? We have no idea what God is doing or has done. The bible was compiled by humans and I expect that mistakes were made in the telling.
 
I think religion and non-religion are fundamentally at odds for exactly the reasons I spelled out in my answer to #5. You can’t place your #1 priority on believing what is true about the universe, and also be religious, unless your religion *just happens* to be exactly true in every way about the way the universe works, which we can plainly see is false of all religions on Earth. For example, according to Catholicism, the Communion wine and wafer literally (NOT symbolically) turn into the blood and body of Jesus. A simple experiment—taking a sip of the “blood” to taste-test it and seeing that it is, in fact, stil just regular wine—will confirm that this is false. So if you value believing only true things about the universe, and you value not believing false things as I do, you can’t be satisfied with being religious (as I’m not).
 
The bible was compiled by humans and there were many mistakes, some unintentional and some intentional, in making it available to us today. Further, the mistakes aren’t just in the editing or in the copying: We have no reason to believe that they contain a true, historical account in the first place, even if we had 1st edition, 1st pressings. We have 1st edition, 1st pressings of the Book of Mormon. They contain no copying errors, etc, because they are originals. But that doesn’t mean we give them any more credence—the stories they tell are obvious myths.
 
7) Everyone’s view of Jesus and God is a little or a lot different from each other. Is it possible that all of the books in the bible were of the opinion/views of each individual and could have been slanted in their direction to prove a point?
 
I think that in many cases, this is true. For example, the Synoptic gospels say that Jesus was crucified on Passover (the passover sedar was the night before his crucifixion—the whole “this is my blood, this is my body” thing). In the gospel of John, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples instead. Why? Because in John’s version of the story, Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation (the day before Passover). Why did John change his telling of the story from the other three authors? The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that the author of the gospel we now call John was trying to make a theological point. John is the only author who calls Jesus the lamb, and who talks about substitutionary atonement. This seems to me a clear reference to the sacrificial lambs that, on the Day of Preparation, Jews would purchase from the Temple and have slaughtered by the priests, so that they could take the meat home and prepare the Passover sedar. By having Jesus crucified on the Day of Preparation instead of the next day, John was telling his audience that Jesus himself *is* the sacrificial lamb, that instead of sacrificing animals to atone for your sins as Jews had done for thousands of years, Jesus himself was dying on the cross. In the other gospels, the theology does not seem this developed yet. In Mark, for example, Jesus seems to be fearful and confused when he is dying on the cross. His last words are “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” whereas in John, his last words are a calm, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.” These are hardly the only examples but I think they’re sufficient. The point is that yes, the stories were substantially changed in order to make theological points, which means that we (even more so!) should not trust them as accurate and reliable historical accounts.
 
8) I have trouble with the concept of prayer. If God sees all and knows all then how does he allow so much suffering to go on and on? Why is it deemed necessary for us to ask for help when there is supposed to be a God who knows exactly what is going on and how to help? Why must we plead? Could it be that there is free will and it’s not God’s fault that some people misuse it? That if he kept intervening or disallowing misuse, would that affect our free will? I don’t know. Maybe you do.
 
I think the simplest explanation, the one that fits the evidence the best and is most parsimonious, is quite simply that this all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful god doesn’t exist. That would explain why suffering goes on and on and he doesn’t intervene. We have no reason to think that there is someone who 1) knows what’s wrong 2) has the ability to fix it 3) cares to fix it. I would say that it’s not that we must plead or that it’s deemed necessary for us to ask for supernatural help. I would just say, there’s no one there. If bad things are happening, it’s up to us to make them better, by working together and problem-solving, by inventing technologies that save lives, etc. I personally don’t believe in free will either—free from what? the laws of physics?—but in any case, that would not explain natural disasters. No one’s abuse of free will causes earthquakes in Haiti or tsunamis in Asia, but these things cause enormous suffering that prayer doesn’t help. What *does* help is people giving money, rescue crews going in, etc.
 
9) What could the explanation of my near death experience while in the recovery room after surgery? Such a feeling of warmth and love that I cannot explain. What do I do with that if there is no God?
 
There are a number of chemicals our brains generate when we’re dreaming, having migraines, and under extreme stress to that point that we’re afraid we’re about to die. Among these is one called DMT. Some people use this chemical recreationally because it’s a strong hallucinogen. This and other chemicals are the reason we see flashes of light, feel warmth, and experience the sensation that other people are present etc when we dream or when we’re about to die. Oliver Sacks and Michael Shermer have recently written good rebuttals to the book “Proof of Heaven,” by a neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience and claims that he experienced heaven. Just google “Proof of Heaven debunked” for lots of info on this. There is actually a lot of research on this stuff and all of it so far confirms that nothing supernatural is taking place, just brain chemistry doing what brain chemistry does.
 
10) Could it be that the mathematic and scientific facts are wrong? Just asking because you know I believe in God and think I’m right!! But do you think that the possibility exists that what we are calling facts and concrete evidence against a God might not be accurate?
 
As I wrote about before, science is an ongoing process of refining our explanations of how the universe works. A fact is never wrong by definition; if something turns out to be wrong, that just means we had an incorrect picture of how things worked up until that point. We could be wrong in our beliefs but we get closer and closer the more science we do. To quote Carl Sagan, “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.” As far as math, no, I do not think math facts can be wrong, either. Inside a defined system of math, once you prove something, it cannot turn out to be not true later unless you are using a different mathematical system altogether. That’s the difference between a scientific conclusion and a mathematical proof. Conclusions in science are always “soft” because you could always find new evidence that could cause you to refine your belief about how something works. This is not the way it works in math; in math (and math only), you have proofs, which are fundamentally different. Mathematics is not subject to the problem of induction.
It’s certainly possible that the evidence we have so far might turn out to tell a different story about how old the universe is, or how quickly it expanded, or how big it is, etc. But it’s important to note that even if we somehow found out that everything we’ve learned about the universe so far requires complete revision, that does NOT mean that God is the correct answer, either. That’s like saying, we thought that some virus spread via being bitten by infected animals, but we’ve found out that’s wrong, so it must be God doing it. It could also be, for example, that the virus is spreading the the air or water. In order to say that God is doing it, we’d have to have some separate evidence that God is doing it (which starts with evidence that God exists to do it in the first place!).
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