Thursday, July 18, 2013

Questions from a Catholic

American Atheists had an email sent to them with ten questions from a Catholic woman who wasn't satisfied with the answers given by her atheist husband.

While Dave Muscato gave good responses, I'd like to take a crack at them (I like pointed questions), and perhaps, a little less accepting her attempts at shifting the burden of proof.

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?
I don't understand... what would the fact that my mouth is only a "bunch of cells" would prevent me from smiling or frowning? What does that have to do with a parallel-universe copy of my mind? If nothing, why would eyes be any different? We're a social species that is hardwired to both broadcast and receive body language.

Has this person ever seen a cartoon?

Simple cartoon drawing of different facial expressions.
Courtesy this site.
Does she think the above drawings have souls? After all, how could they have eye expressions if they're just binary data translated onto a 2D LCD display?

I really think this question is a great example of some unspoken underlying hidden premise the theist is operating under, that, to anyone who doesn't share it, the question just comes across as bizarre.

If she's going to assert that souls are required for eyes to be expressive, she needs to actually make that case... because to the rest of us... what?

2) If we weren’t designed/created then how do the cells know where to go and what to do?
Gotta love these "If there is no God, then how do you explain ______?" questions. There's an underlying assumption that, if no other explanation exists, therefore, it's legitimate to conclude that a sky wizard is somehow involved. It's basically an Argument from Ignorance, if it becomes an assertion.

My question back to her would be, "What makes you think intelligent design is required?"

I haven't a freaking clue how it works. Ask a biologist.

Again, if she is going to assert that intelligent design is how cells "know where to go and what to do", she needs to actually find a way of demonstrating that assertion is true.

... otherwise, if she has no case, and we have no scientific data, our current status regarding this question is "unknown; investigation in progress."

3) Do you think it is possible that God created the dinosaurs, etc? Then changed his mind, big bang theory was His idea?
Wait... is she asking whether it's possible for God to create dinosaurs, then Big Banged everything to erase the dinosaurs? The Big Bang wasn't 65 Million years ago... that was a 10Km meteor.

If God exists, sure it's possible.

The real question is, what evidence does she have that anything like that happened? The first step to demonstrating that God caused anything is to demonstrate that God exists.

Given how much the Bible catalogs God's failure after failure, it wouldn't surprise me if he just gave up on the dinosaurs too.

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.
Could it be possible we don't know everything? Uh, yes? I would have told you that straight up front. I've love to know how Black Holes work. If we knew everything, we wouldn't even be doing science anymore. What kind of a silly question is this?

... and yes, there's plenty that we already know we're wrong about. In the problem of Quantum Gravity (going back to Black Holes - just can't get away), we know Quantum Physics and General Relativity are wrong, because when we try to evaluate black holes with either, the equations fail.

In the meantime, the models we have work pretty well for the contexts they were originally developed. Science spends a lot of effort refining what we think we already know.

... that's what science does.

Personally witnessing a phenomenon isn't required to scientifically study it. While more difficult, empirical investigative hypothesis testing can suss out the details of a phenomenon which occurred in the distant past.

This goes back to this strange epistemological notion many Christians seem to have, that the only way to legitimately know anything is eye witness testimony... as though human memory, perception and cognition are flawless.

Was she there when Jesus did his thing? How does she know that happened? The answer they usually give to that question is that others were present, according to their unproven dusty old book, the Bible. If that's an epistemological standard, then she also must accept that every asserted eye witness testimony from every other religion, ever, is also true.

I doubt she'd accept that logical conclusion.

Keep in mind that we have a lot of empirically gathered knowledge about aspects of the universe that no one has ever seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard... but they work; the Atomic Theory, for instance. If only eye witness testimony were valid, the entire field of forensics would be invalidated, and all investigations into crimes/events where we have no eye witnesses must be thrown out.

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 in someone who was real. How would this stump anyone?

This may sound egocentric, but I'm more interested in being correct than happy/loved.

As it turns out, I believe in all kinds of things - friends, family, physics, mowing the lawn keeps it tidy, etc. They just happen to be demonstrably real things.

I don't know that there's much more to say about this. It's fairly simple.

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.
What if they were okay? I think she's kind of missing the point. If they have contradictions, are incoherent, and chalked full of error... there's a problem with their claims. Those errors would need to be resolved.

The contradictions just make the whole story unintelligible and not very compelling. Of course, the case for a claim can be imperfect, and the case still basically be correct. That's life.

Frankly, I don't care if it was fully internally consistent, with zero contradictions. They're still missing the step where any of it is demonstrated to be true.

In summary:

  • Internally consistent and  free of contradictions does not automatically make it true
  • Not wholly consistent and with some contradictions does not make it automatically false
The key, is whether or not the claims have been sufficiently justified by evidence.

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 have trouble with the concept of prayer too. We have something in common!

Why is she asking atheists to explain her incoherent and unintelligible doctrine to her? She appears to be thinking about it at least, but hasn't gotten to the point of thinking, "Hmmm... maybe it's just bullshit."

Apologists keep throwing in the concept of free will, as some kind of "get out of jail free" card, whenever the problem of evil comes up... and it's a concept that has major problems in itself.

Again, I have to go back to the idea that the first step is to demonstrate that any of the doctrine is even true. The rest - questioning the coherency of the concepts - is moot, until that's done.

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?
You mean a delusional hallucinatory state? Does she realize that many drugs operate by basically suffocating the brain of oxygen? We go silly when suffering from oxygen deprivation.

Has she looked at any studies into the biology of this (link to Wiki article)? What has she done to distinguish between it being a supernatural event, versus a biological process? Strangely, whenever we try to set up tests for things like out-of-body experiences, like having cards with numbers written on them on top of shelves/cabinets, they can never gain access to that information that is otherwise out of site to the normal people walking around.

It sounds like it's just another Argument from Ignorance.

Outside of that, I don't know. Does she have any evidence that indicates it's a supernatural event?

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?
What we think are scientific facts need refinement all the time. That's how Science works. In fact, it's at the core of how science works. People complaining that science "keeps changing" is like saying that car engines are malfunctioning because the drive shaft keeps rotating.

Can math be wrong? No. Though, that's because it's a purely abstracted and axiomatic framework. A lot of things are true by decree and absolute proofs... though that's not a good comparison to investigations into reality.

Of course our "facts" may be wrong. That's why Science constantly self-improves, and keeps investigating, even things that we already think are true.

Religion refuses to do this.

Our "facts and concrete evidence against God" might not be accurate, sure. Then we need to work on figuring out what the truth actually is. Ultimately, the time to rationally believe a claim is true, is when it's been sufficiently justified by evidence above the other possibilities.


If you'll notice, this woman and I definitely approach our world views in very distinctly different ways.

  • I start with zero knowledge, investigate the universe around me, and when something is sufficiently justified by evidence, it gets added to my knowledge base.
  • She, like many theists, starts with a set of things they're calling knowledge, without any kind of evidence, and "knowledge bits" are removed and disqualified one by one... as sort of a process of elimination, when it just becomes impossible to deny that science has shown that, yet again, the religious assertion was just plain false.
This is why her questions come across to be as strange and unusual.

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