Friday, May 24, 2013

Arguments For God Part 3: The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument, a.k.a. the watchmaker argument, a.k.a. the argument from design, is one of the older arguments for the existence of god. Although there are many who discuss this argument, I will (for the most part) be addressing this argument as it was presented by William Paley. On the surface of it the argument seems to be a very straight forward, and almost intuitively correct. The essence of the argument is the idea that the world appears to be designed, therefore, as with any other designed thing; it must therefore have a designer.

               The truth is that when one looks out at our amazing world and sees the intricate interconnectedness and complexity that surrounds us; it seems far-fetched that anything but an intelligent designer could be responsible for it. Anyone who has ever tried creating or designing just about anything, knows how much work goes into any product, how many failed attempts must be suffered through before a finished product is finally ready. With that perspective in mind reality seems to scream out for an explanation, who could’ve designed this? Why would he/she/it have done this? Which one of us has not at one moment or another marveled at the human body. If you have not, I would recommend that you do so know. Notice how much input you are receiving from your senses, marvel at the astounding computer which is your brain, immerse yourself in the wonder that is you, a functioning human being, and ask yourself how can this be anything but designed. William Paley asks us to imagine that we were walking across a park (ok, he called it a heath, same shit) and we were to find a watch on the ground. He claims that we would be fully justified in assuming it was designed, simply based on the fact that it functions so well (this example is the source of the term “watchmaker argument”). Again, this seems obviously true; it would be absurd to say the watch was always here, or that it came together itself.

                Insofar as is relevant to this conversation, there are three important points that need to be raised. The first is not a scientific point, it is a logical consequence, and such is more of a philosophical issue, it is the next two points which are really exciting. The first is that if our world with all of its complexity and functionality demands a designer, how much more so does this designer herself demand a designer, and so on ad infinitum. In other words if we say that anything that functions well needs a designer, then a designer capable of designing a reality such as our own must also have a designer. Therefore, postulating a designer does not answer any questions, it simply moves the question up a level. However it is the next two points which I really want to spend time on, because our original sentiments seemed well placed; how could all of this just be here on its own?

                One of the most amazing consequences of science has been the realization that our first intuition is not always correct. From when the ancient Greeks discovered that our earth was not flat, to Einstein telling us that space-time can be wibbly-wobbly, the trend seems to be that our first intuition is not always accurate. There seems to be a misunderstanding that Darwin was the first to propose that all species had a common ancestor, this is false. The Greeks had already noticed the similarities between species, thousands of years before him. However it was Darwin who introduced the mechanism by which one species would gradually change into another. When Paley discusses possible counter-arguments he simply dismisses the idea that there could be a natural law which could possibly explain the complexity we see in life. Yet, that is just what Darwin managed to do.

                What will follow will not be a thorough explanation of the theory of evolution; it will simply be a brief overview. If you have never read up on it, I highly recommend that you do; there are countless fantastic books on the topic. At the heart of it however, evolution is an idea so simple even a child can understand it. Let us imagine an environment in which survival is a challenge, there will be those who will be better adapted to that environment, and they will reproduce and survive; while those are not well suited for that environment will die out. That’s it. That’s the whole theory of evolution by natural selection. The mechanism behind it is also rather simple, what makes me, me, and what makes you, you, is our DNA. Your DNA is absolutely unique; there are no two living things in the world with the same DNA. Most of your DNA comes from your parents, however some of it was never theirs, it’s only yours, and you will pass all of it on to your children. Therefore, when you have any population, each individual is just that, and individual. It some cases, one individual will have some unique characteristic that will give it a better chance of survival, and by extension, a better chance of propagating that gene which allowed that advantage.

                The other important point that I wanted to raise was the distinction between function and design. Imagine you were stranded on an island and you discovered a huge cave where you could live. Imagine the cave had many rooms, a pool of water from where you could drink, and had a perfect sized rock that you could lift and move over to the entrance of the cave like a door. As much as this cave might suit your needs, as much as this cave functions as a home for you, it does mean that it was designed for this purpose. Science fiction author Douglas Adams once gave the following analogy at a lecture

                “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!’”

                We find that if we look a bit closer, we begin to notice that life was not designed by a designer at all. As a matter of fact it’s mostly horribly designed (its ability to function notwithstanding). The oft held up human eye while fantastically functioning, is horribly “designed”. First of all we are practically blind; out of the entire electromagnetic spectrum we are blind to most of it. Secondly, it looks as though it were a camera with the sensor facing inward instead of outward. The wiring (our nerves carrying the information to our brains) is in the worst possible place; between the camera and lens. For more read here, or for more on our eyes’ “design” check this out. There are countless examples that show that living species were not designed (at least not by a competent designer) check here for example, or this lecture from the always entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson responding to the idea that the universe was designed for life.

One final point that I would like to mention in passing is that “god” is never a good answer to any scientific question. Since “god” is a “who” answer while scientific questions are “how” questions; however this point needs its own post, maybe I’ll do that next.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Smokey Rain / Rainy Smoke

                I remember, as a fifteen year old in summer camp, making the following observation. Normally when having a cigarette, after exhaling the smoke the smoke would disperse rather quickly. When it was rainy weather however, it seemed to me that the smoke would linger in the air a bit longer. I could give no reason for it at the time, and it was just an observation. Having just had a cigarette tonight in the rainy weather I noticed it again, now however, I think I have a hypothesis as to why this is.
                When you exhale smoke, you are not just exhaling smoke. When the smoke is in your lungs, it gets attached to water molecules there. When you blow out the smoke, you are really blowing out smoke attached to water vapor. This can be noticed by the change in color in the smoke from before inhalation (when it is blueish) to after exhalation (when it is more whiteish grayish). The reason for this is the same reason why the sky is blue but the clouds are gray/white. When light hits a bunch of particles, if the particles are small enough there will be an effect called Raleigh scattering. The effect of this scattering is that the smallest wavelength of light will be scattered the most, which in most cases blue. However if the particles are bigger, all colors will scatter equally, leaving it white. The particles in smoke and in our atmosphere are small enough that the light will scatter blue, while water vapor in clouds or in our breath are too big therefore all colors are scattered equally.

                When it is dry outside both the smoke and water vapor get easily dispersed in the air; however when it is rainy outside there is a lot of water in the air, and therefore the smoke mixed with water vapor takes longer to get dispersed in the air.

                This is just a hypothesis, I don’t actually know if this is true. I’m pretty sure about all of it except for the fact that the water vapor in the smoke will cause the mixture of smoke and water vapor to disperse more slowly.

                On a related note, don’t start smoking, it’s a bitch of a habit and I have been trying to quit for years. DON’T SMOKE.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Arguments For God Part 2: The Kuzari Argument

The Kuzari Argument, is probably the most oft-repeated argument in support of the existence of the Jewish god. Attributed to the Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, it has seen resurgence lately in the works of Rabbi David Gottlieb, Rabbi Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Lawrence Keleman, and many others. There are many different formulations of this argument; however the essential principles of the argument are the same.

There is a tradition amongst Jews that tells of an event in which god revealed himself to them
This tradition is reliable
An event of this magnitude cannot be falsified
Therefore the event must have taken place as described
Therefore god must exist

I am not going to discuss every flaw in this argument, I would rather cover (what I feel) are the two major critiques. The first of these is that there is no evidence that this event ever took place. The second is that even if it did in fact take place, as described, it still would not suffice as evidence for god’s existence.

It should be obvious that to assert that in must have taken place simply because the torah said it did, is a circular argument, and I will not discuss it any further past this simple observation.

Rabbi Keleman, when discussing the argument, claims that if the event did not happen then there are only three options before us; what he calls past, present, and future theory. Past theory – someone got up one day and told the jews that their ancestors had witnessed the Sinai event. Present theory – someone got up and told the jews that they witnessed gods revelation. Future theory – someone got up and told the jews that somewhere in the future god will reveal himself. It seems to me that he set it up this way so as to give the reader the false impression of having covered all of his bases, when in fact two of the options are clearly absurd. Furthermore, he is only contemplating the option that one person got up at some point and asserted that the event took place. It seems that he has ignored the most logical option, the evolving myth. There is no reason to assume that the Sinai event was any different from the typical myth. Perhaps there was a meeting of people near Sinai where they devised a few laws which were deemed “divinely inspired”. It doesn’t take much to imagine that story evolving into what we know today as the story of the giving of the torah. However the real problem with the kuzari argument becomes apparent if we grant, for arguments sake, that the event did take place.

In order for us to accept their testimony, they would have to know what it was they were seeing. Let us compare it for a minute to the UFO phenomenon. The fact that there are UFOs makes perfect sense, as there are many flying things that most people cannot identify. However, for people to then claim that it must therefore be an extraterrestrial spaceship is unjustified. All they know is that they don’t know what it is. If I see a new kind of bug that I have never seen before, I can easily identify it as a bug, because I have seen many bugs before, but if I would have “met an alien” I would be hard pressed to identify it as such since I have no experience with aliens. To bring it back to the Sinai event, how could the average jew at the time know that what they were seeing was in fact a god? They couldn’t. They could do no better than the UFO  case; simply call it unidentified. Furthermore we have documented evidence of thousands of people seeing an event and mistakenly interpret it. In the 1900’s there was an event where tens of thousands of people claimed to have seen extraordinary things which couldn’t have happened on the basis of everything that we know about reality.

More importantly, the issue I take with using Sinai as a basis for belief in god is as follows. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this doesn’t cut it. When it comes to claims about reality, science has noticed that the lowest, cheapest, worst, most unreliable form evidence is eyewitness testimony, and that’s when the people are alive and telling you, in person, what they saw. In order to claim that everything we know about reality is an illusion and that there is a god running the show, not just any god, a prayer listening, commandment issuing, intervening gods, you better have some really powerful evidence. No eyewitness testimony will do, let alone a book claiming that some people thousands of years ago saw it. That simply won’t do.