Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

20 questions that atheists need to be able to answer

Here are some puzzling phenomena that every person should try to struggle with, and find the answers. (H/T Justin Brierley)

Here’s the full list:

1.What caused the universe to exist?

2.What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

3.Why is the universe rational?

4.How did DNA and amino acids arise?

5.Where did the genetic code come from?

6.How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

I’m leaving out numbers 7 and 8 because they lack specificity.

9.How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

10.How do we account for self-awareness?

11.How is free will possible in a material universe?

12.How do we account for conscience?

13.On what basis can we make moral judgements?

14.Why does suffering matter?

15.Why do human beings matter?

16.Why care about justice?

17.How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist?

19.How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?

20.What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

So here’s the deal. It seems to me that there we can either search for and find answers to these questions, and then adjust our behavior to fit even if we will be less happy and fulfilled, or we can make our happiness and personal autonomy in this life the most important thing, and invent answers to these questions that are speculative. Either we live consistently with the evidence we have now, or we live how we want and hope for future evidence that will overturn the evidence we have now.

I think that this is the choice that we are facing as humans. Either we make truth the top priority, and let our lives change in order to respond to the evidence we have right now or we make our happiness the top priority and speculate that the universe is other than the way it is so that we can pursue happiness unencumbered by the obligation to know the Creator and Designer of the universe.

Everyone always talks about “the meaning of life”. I’ll tell you what the meaning of life is. It’s to puzzle about the questions above and get into an intimate, loving, self-sacrificial relationship with the Creator and Designer of the universe – a relationship bounded by facts, not feelings. What is so objectionable with the idea that there might be a Person out there who has a claim on us? So long as his intentions are good, why are we so unwilling to be his friend and to take his character into account when we decide what we will do with our lives?

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42 Responses

  1. Pat Joy says:

    I think the last question should be left out cos athiests just say it didn’t happen and it was made up, but I think one that should be put in is ‘If the universe started with a big bang, what exploded?’

    • Chris says:

      Physicists tend to stay away from using the word explosion. An explosion is the process of combustion and at the time of the big bang there was no oxygen. So instead they use expansion.

      • I should use expansion, too.

      • Paradox says:

        Chris, last I checked, an explosion is an extremely rapid expansion. It is not necessarily combustion.
        At the beginning of the universe, there was an extremely rapid expansion. Therefore, at the beginning of the universe, there was an explosion.

  2. Mildman says:

    These questions are easy to answer from the atheist perspective. Simply choose one of the following:

    1. We don’t know how, but evolution/physics did it
    2. We don’t know, but science will tell us one day.
    3. We don’t know, but it certainly wasn’t God.
    4. We don’t know, but it could be (insert unsupported speculation).
    5. Because (insert personal subjective opinion).
    6. That phenomenon is an illusion.
    7. (Insert ad hominem toward theists.)

    1-4 are good for biological, cosmological, or historical questions. 5 is good for moral questions. 6 is good for psychological or teleological questions. 7 is ideal for all questions.

  3. Matt says:

    Wintery,

    Do you think any atheists have answered or at least come close to answering some of these questions? What do you think the best attempts are?

  4. These are all really good questions to ask atheists, but the most important is, if there is no Higher Authority, how do you know right from wrong? There is simply no intellectually honest answer to that question. Morality without an authoritative source is absolutely meaningless. And I realize that atheists say that morality is some form of social conditioning or contract, but the most admired virtues: heroism, self-sacrifice, unselfishness, could not have evolved from a social contract because they do not prolong longevity or serve any self interest.

    • Citizen Ghost says:

      “if there is no Higher Authority, how do you know right from wrong?”

      Even prominent Christian apologists like Willian Lane Craig acknowledge that an atheist can KNOW right and wrong just as a theist can.

      The issue isn’t KNOWING right and wrong – it’s identifying the foundation or source of what is right and wrong. You say that morality without an authorative source is meaningless. But may philosophers would say just the opposite – that identifying an authority doesn’t tell us the first thing about right and wrong.

      Imagine a child asking a parent “Why is it a bad thing if I do this?” and the parent says “Because I said so” as if the saying so is what makes the thing good or bad. As a moral foundation, mere authority tells us nothing.

      • The difference is that God makes the entire universe. The person who invents the game and creates the ball and the field and the players gets to decide the rules of the game.

        • Citizen Ghost says:

          So because God created the Universe, good and evil are whatever God says they are because God invented the rules of the game?

          The problem with this formulation is that it appeals merely to the power of the Creator Being. It rests morality in power alone – and not in any manner of moral reasoning. That’s why it doesn’t work as a moral theory. After all, a Being could have the power to create the Universe and be utterly evil. Or for that matter, a Being could have the power to create the Universe and not have any regard whatsoever for how creatures behave.

          • Grace says:

            Citizen Ghost, actually, our moral theory isn’t about power. We believe that God is the absolute standard for goodness and that His commands are based from His immutable good nature.

            The problem with the atheist moral theory is that if it is based on the will of the people, then morality is based off of what you just said: power- might makes right because the atheist theory is not prescriptive. There is no “ought”, only conditional commands. “If” you desire this outcome, then do this. The problem is what if a person doesn’t care about the outcome. “Might makes right” doesn’t follow that the actions would always be “good”.

          • Citizen Ghost says:

            Grace,

            I’m unware that there is any such thing as “atheist moral theory.” We see all the time that nonbelievers can and do subscribe to any number of moral theories.

            I appreciate that your own view is that God is the absolute standard of goodness. But what is the reason you think so? If the answer is “because as the creator of the universe, God makes all the rules,” then that really is a case of rooting morality in authority. Regards.

      • dpatrickcollins says:

        “The issue isn’t KNOWING right and wrong — it’s identifying the foundations or soruce of what is right and wrong.”

        Correct. But I would modify that slightly and say the issue is identifying the foundation not of what is right and wrong but of whether there is right and wrong. That is, is morality objectively true or not. Not whether we happen to feel things some things are right and others are wrong, nor where our sense of right and wrong came from (evolutionary conditioning or a Creator), but whether there is such a thing objectively or not.

        If we claim all that exists is matter and energy, including ourselves, then I believe it is more difficult to conclude there is such a thing as morality that is not ultimately reducible to either personal choice and social acceptance, which is not, by definition, objective. Would you agree?

  5. Phil says:

    There is simply no intellectually honest answer to that question.

    Case closed then, eh kathleen? This is why I stopped trying to reason with theists many years ago.

  6. Stephen says:

    1. I don’t know, and I don’t need to know in order to dismiss a poor explanation.
    2. The anthropic principle.
    3. An irrational universe could not sustain its own existence.
    4. Read a book on the subject.
    5. That’s the same question as 4.
    6. Loaded question. Ignored.
    9. Thoughts are electrical impulses. Nothing magical about them.
    10. It’s an inevitable consequence of increased intelligence.
    11. It isn’t.
    12. Morality (in the most basic sense) is the effort to minimise the suffering of conscious beings.
    13. It is an epiphenomena of complex neurological activity.
    14. Because we don’t like it.
    15. Because we like them.
    16. Society can’t function without it. We like society.
    17. Humans are pattern seeking animals. The primitive human who sees a bear through the trees when there isn’t one, will live longer than the one who doesn’t see a bear when there is.
    18.a. The very term “supernatural” suggests so.
    18.b. What we might call supernatural, in the sense that it is beyond our understanding of nature, may or may not exist, but each individual claim of such is incredibly unlikely without evidence.
    19. By discovering an aspect of conscience that is not dependant on a physical brain for existence.
    20.a. If such an event really happened, its account would not be limited to a poorly written book with a terrible track record on facts.
    20.b. The spread of Christianity is attributable to its instatement as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine.

    • Grace says:

      Stephen, thanks for answering the questions. A few comments:
      1. Christians have arguments for the existence of God that goes with this question about the universe coming into existence. Skepticism does not refute arguments.
      2. The problem with the anthropic principle is that it does not allow us to explain anything or to predict anything that we did not already know. You could say that the multiverse explains the fine-tuning of the universe, but that hypothesis is problematic.
      3. So you must believe in the existence of the immaterial. Anything that goes against logic is irrational, and the laws of logic are immaterial.
      4. I personally think that 4 should have been “Can DNA and amino acids arise by themselves?” Books will not tell you that because biologists have not been able to determine that.
      5. Books will not tell you where the genetic codes comes from. The code is a language; it’s information and scientists are unable to explain where information came from. “Information is Information, neither matter nor energy. No materialism that fails to take account of this can survive the present day.” – Norbert Weiner, MIT Mathematician and Father of Cybernetics
      6. Ok
      9. I guess that if you support evolution and determinism, then all future events are predetermined, including human decisions, and there is no such thing as free will or independent thought. I think this is what the question is getting at.
      10. I probably agree with you there. I don’t think any human becomes self-aware until they have gained a little intelligence.
      11. Then how is independent thought possible?
      12. Sometimes people do not suffer when a wrong has been committed. A millionaire who has not noticed that a small amount of money has been stolen will not suffer. The answer fails to explain where conscience came from.
      13. You didn’t tell us the basis for making moral judgments. You just told us about the physical processes of the brain, which is not the same thing. It’s as vacuous as saying, “I can ride a bike because I have a brain.”
      14. I agree with you- humans do not like suffering.
      15. Q-Why do human beings matter? A-Because we like them. –That’s not a true statement. Humans do not always like other humans. You would have to admit that you like some humans more than others. But what makes humans special, when on evolution, humans are not special? Richard Dawkins writes in _The_God _Delusion “The granting of uniquely special rights to cells of the species Homo sapiens is hard to reconcile with the fact of evolution…. The humanness of an embryo’s cells cannot confer upon it any absolutely discontinuous moral status” (Dawkins, 2006, p. 300, italics in orig.)
      16. Most atheists believe that good and evil is subjective. I don’t know if you do; if you don’t, then I’ll apologize for just assuming. But if good and evil is subjective, then it is only a preference like an opinion. Who is to say whose preference or opinion is right or wrong? You have to figure out what grounds objective good or evil first before there can be any justice. Justice is non-existent on subjective good or evil; basically, no one can be wronged if morals are subjective.
      17. Are you suggesting that people with beliefs in the supernatural have an advantage for survival and will live longer?
      18. a). How does the term “supernatural” suggest that supernatural does not exist? That’s statement is non-sequitur.
      18. b). Then you don’t really _know_ that the supernatural does or does not exist.
      19. Right-case studies of NDE’s show that the sub conscious can survive outside the physical body.
      20. a). Does not answer the question
      20. b). You have it backwards. The spread of Christianity is the result of the empty tomb, resurrection appearances.
      Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions. I did wonder what the answers atheists would give to some of them.

      • Stephen says:

        Thanks, I’m always willing, at least when the time is available to me, to help those genuinely interested, to gain insight into a topic I may know about.

        I will not be addressing casey’s objections, since they demonstrate a frequent misunderstanding of the concepts being discussed. I know that sounds, and is, patronising, but experience tells me that when such misunderstandings only serve to reinforce a flawed argument, people prioritise them over reasoned conversation.

        1. There’s a whole other conversation to be had here. In short; I have never encountered an adequate argument. This question was loaded anyway: our understanding of causation comes from our observations of the interactions of matter and energy. If the big bang is the origin of such things, then such laws might not apply to it.
        2. What is problematic with a multiverse hypothesis?
        3. The laws of logic are descriptions of the behaviour of the observable universe, they are material.
        4. They can, and have, arisen by themselves. I’m afraid I don’t have time to search & provide the links, so you may dismiss this if you wish, but I’d recommend at least having a browse for studies on the subject if you do.
        5. Information is material. There is no such thing as information existing without material.
        9. People confuse the ability to make a choice, with having free will. I may choose between coke or pepsi, I can choose the one I want, but I cannot choose to want it. However it still accurately represents who I am as a person when I make such a choice, and so I can be without free will, and still maintain my identity.
        11. My response to 9. should cover that.
        12. Conscience is basically empathy, which is the product of evolving as part of social structures. I can go into more detail about how such instincts arise if you like?
        13. Yes, I seem to have jumbled the order a little. My original answer to 12. applies here. Once you can cement a defintion of morality, the basis for making moral judgments is no more elusive than the rules of chess being the basis for making chess moves.
        15. I think you have very slightly taken Dawkins out of context there, not deliberately or disingenuously. I would say, and, if I may be so bold as to speak for a stranger, I think he would say too, that it is not necessarily being human that grants priviledge, but simply our capacity for and range of emotional states, something shared in varying degrees by all life. In your quotation, Dawkins isn’t saying that there is nothing special about humans, but that it isn’t simply being human that makes us special. We should, and indeed we do, give moral considerations to other animals than ourselves, and it is genrally on the basis of an ad-hoc assessment of their capacity to suffer, be happy/sad etc etc.
        16. I do believe right and wrong/good and evil is objective, in the same way I believe the rules of football are objective. If someone asks “Who are you to say those are the rules of football?” I can only appeal to the fact that these rules are generally what is meant when people use the word football. Such is the nature of words. If I am asked if I would like a game of football, and approach the field with a spherical ball, only to see fellow teamates donning body armour, that doesn’t change the fact that both our sets of rules of football are objective, it simply means we mean two different things when we use the term.
        17. I don’t know, perhaps, or perhaps it is a remnant of a previous lifestyle, inapplicable to modern life, like an appendix. It is certainly prone to dangerous inflammation.
        18.a. If God exists, then he exists spontaneously, a *natural* consequence of the fact that anything exists at all. In that sense, the term supernatural doesn’t really apply to anything.
        18.b. No I don’t, and I don’t claim to. It’s a common misconception that atheism is the claim that there are no god/s. It is simply the dismissal of the claim that there are god/s. There may be a planet upon which, lives an animal almost identical to a flamingo, with the exception that its plumage is luminous green. This is entirely possible given what we have seen of convergence in evolution, however, if someone tells me there definitely is such a flamingo, and starts making various extraneous claims about the flamingo, then I’d dismiss the claim based on lack of evidence. I’d be an a-luminousflamigo-ist.
        19. To be blunt: no they don’t. “NDEs” have been replicated with particular hallucinogenic drugs, the actual experiences had near death, are most likely the result of large amounts of, if I remember correctly, DMT, a substance that is ironically both highly illegal, produced by our own brain, and capable of disabling our sense of presence, or location in the real world when the brain experiences trauma.
        20.a. It doesn’t answer the question because it is yet another loaded question. My answer is simply that the evidence of such an event is terribly inadequate.
        20.b. There is no evidence for that claim.

        On a final note: I would also like to adress the title of this page. Referring to my most recent 18.b: atheists don’t *need to be able to answer these questions, all that is required to be an atheist is to not believe.

        • Paradox says:

          1. The point in asking these questions is for you to have an answer. Simply saying you don’t know is to avoid giving an answer. What makes God a poor explanation? Nothing but a bankrupt ideology.
          On Causation: No, we’ve observed mental causation as well. Our observations are not restricted to material phenomena. But let’s assume, for your sake, that it IS: now you have to explain why immaterial things do not come into and out of existence willy-nilly. Saying that immaterial things simply can’t exist is to defeat your proposed loop-hole; an immaterial cause that is somehow consistent with atheism can no longer be postulated. Your rebuttal is incoherent.

          2. Let’s start with your Anthropic principle: it is a brain-fart, simple as that. It only tells us that we live in a fine-tuned universe, not how we got here, or what the explanation is. If we use it as an actual explanation, then we are perfectly justified to claim that machines are the product of natural forces also. “We shouldn’t be surprised that there is a space shuttle in your front lawn. If it weren’t there, you wouldn’t be surprised about it.” What we need is a real explanation, and it is our contention that “naturalistic” ones are inadequate.
          Let’s go with the multiverse: This is also a brain-fart. Every possible state of affairs can be actualized in a multiverse, and IS actualized somewhere. It is more probable that a space shuttle self-assembled from atoms, someplace where we can observe it, than for the universe to be fine-tuned by chance. Yet we see nothing like this. The Anthropic principle doesn’t save your bacon, as it only says we live in a fine-tuned universe, not that we live in a universe where such an event is impossible. We should expect absurdly improbable phenomena like this to happen every day. Your proposal is false on both accounts.

          3. *Face Palm.* Why are atheists allowed to make such weak explanations, but not theists?? You have to PROVE that an irrational universe cannot last long enough for observers to arise in it. An irrational universe doesn’t care about such a proof, so would not be affected by it.
          We can use logic to describe things that don’t happen in the universe. Obviously, logic is NOT bound to the universe in any way. The laws of logic, if they are real (Platonism?), are not material. Your assertion is so obviously false, that I can’t help but feel you have moral reasons for your atheism.

          4. None of these books have satisfactory answers. The question that was asked is based on the belief that at least ONE prohibitive condition on the prebiotic Earth (usually, an abundance of oxygen in the atmosphere) prevents the production of amino acids. I really don’t care right now whether WinteryKnight holds such a position or not. That’s his problem right now, not mine.

          5. There is no possible naturalistic explanation of the genetic CODE. DNA is the material manifestation of this code, but codes do not rise from matter alone. Codes require contingency, choice, and convention; a set of symbols to represent certain things must be agreed upon before-hand. You have to show that nature can create symbols, and agree on what set to use, or none of these books is worth the read.
          Secondly, if I face palm myself again, I’ll have a head-ache. Information is not identical to its medium; we can download a song from the internet, put it on a hard-disk, memorize the song, write it on a piece of paper. Which medium is the information IDENTICAL to? None of them. If information were made of matter, it would be identical to one of these media. That you must make such an absurd assertion is rather telling!

          6. This is not a loaded question. You can even assert that there is no such thing, and that would be an answer.

          9. Thoughts are NOT electrical impulses; Here is a thought-experiment: Suppose we had the technology of Star Trek, and I downloaded your mind into a computer. A genetic computer (see http://www.howstuffworks.com/dna-computer.htm). No electricity involved, and your mind is inside this computer. Thoughts are not electrical impulses, Quod Erat Demonstratum.
          To “choose” is for the self to determine what course of action will be taken. For the self to determine what course of action will be taken, it must be the source of these things. But that is the definition of freewill. Therefore, to make a choice is to demonstrate freewill. I don’t quite see why we’re bringing identity into this. Care to explain?

          10. I’m about to face palm. Somebody call a doctor! The fact is that we can conceive incredibly intelligent beings, who lack self-awareness. What you need is a mechanism that leads to self-awareness, which is somehow connected to our intelligence, or your assertion is baseless, and not worth the space it takes up.

          11. But the fact is that we have freewill. The basic definition of freewill is: “The self is the source of action in an individual.” If it is not the SELF who is determining your actions (which include your atheism), your actions are not the result of rational thought. Your acceptance of atheism is therefore irrational. Something is terribly wrong here.
          Your response at Nine does not apply here, as we have shown.

          12. Morality is the right thing. You need to show that minimizing suffering is the right thing; otherwise, this is not an actual answer to the question. Remember that there is no right or wrong on atheism.
          This tidbit about evolution is irrelevant. The question implicitly assumes that we sense absolute right and wrong, rather than their respective illusions. Being an empathetic being for social reasons only works if society is founded on these absolutes in some way. This has not been answered.

          13. You did not explain where moral judgments come from; epiphenomena are only a description of what is happening, not an explanation. And, as for the thought-experiment at Nine, we can see that your explanation, even if it had the required power, is false.
          Now all you have to do is show that your definition of morality is the correct one, and you may have an explanation. Good luck with that.

          14. Just because we don’t like something, does not mean it truly matters. The question assumes that suffering has a transcendental importance, and is looking for an explanation of that. So what is it?

          15.My response to 14 applies here.
          The fact is there is nothing special about humans, Dawkins or no, that requires us to matter.

          16. I can conceive of a communist state where justice doesn’t truly exist as a system. People just do what they are supposed to do because they know that going against the system will leave them without food, shelter, and so forth.
          Do you care to explain how objective good and evil can exist in a world of atheism? Your belief is inconsistent with your proposed materialist stance.

          17. Seeking patterns does not explain why we believe in the supernatural. How do we make the leap from “There are patterns” to “There are supernatural beings”? The two are not connected.
          A remnant of a previous lifestyle? Alright, maybe. Which is no longer applicable in the modern world? You really are deluded; the fact is that much of what we see shows the two to be compatible. Anybody who pays attention can see that.

          18.a: You’re explanation is inadequate: Why should only what you call “nature” exist? The act of defining nature assumes that the definition ITSELF is “beyond nature”, and so is supernatural. Ergo, at least one supernatural thing exists: the word “nature”.
          All you have done is show that the term “nature” really has no definition at all. Maybe the definition “Nature is everything that God created” is the correct definition? Then we see that God’s existence is a supernatural consequence of the fact of anything existing at all. This all really is just a semantic argument.
          18.b: We have documented many cases that could be supernatural. The question is whether you are willing to accept these documentations as evidence, or just say these were faked (as I expect you would do, if you watched a video of a traditional Roman Catholic exorcism).
          The classical definition of atheism is the denial of the existence of God or Gods. The definition of agnostic is of a person who does not claim to know either way. What you are advocating is weak atheism, or agnostic atheism.

          19. I think you’re being much too loose in answering this. In Christianity, the idea of a resurrection body is important. For all you know, the afterlife uses a body in the next world, waiting for its host. Think Neo-Egyptian Religion, so that the body does not have to go with the person.
          Many cases of NDE have been reported where the brain activity Has Completely Ceased. You may want to give some actual thought into that part. You have been refuted.

          20.a: The Bible is not poorly written, and even if it is, this is merely an ad hominem attack. There are OTHER pieces of evidence, which people who are not ignorant would know about. The strongest piece, in my opinion, is the way Jewish propaganda assumed that the tomb was empty.
          If you would do your homework, you would see that it is at least as strong as the evidence of a modern murder case.
          20.b: That explanation is ad hoc. It grew very rapidly BEFORE it was instantiated as the Roman Religion. And it grew in Jerusalem first, where the event took place. Something nobody would expect, if they had thought this through.
          There is plenty of evidence. It has been documented in every nook and cranny of apologia.

          NOTE. If you want to call your religious faith, and all the fervor it draws, a “reasonable” faith, you must be able to answer the questions.

          • Stephen says:

            You have overlooked so many details of this conversation, details that answer your contentions before you make them.
            Either you have ignored large sections of this page, or you have simply misunderstood various concepts as they appear here.

            Neither of these is a crime, but to present your arguments in the tone you have reduces your own legitimacy, not anyone else’s.

            The ability to ask a question does not require it to have an answer.

          • Paradox says:

            I paid attention to everything you said.
            If you really can answer my objections, I ask you to prove it, rather than assert I missed “something” (how vague).

            I have carefully researched these concepts for a long time; I very probably understood what was said.

            My TONE is because many of your claims are absurd (“information is material”), to the point they imply moral issues, rather than rational ones.

            The ability to ask a question entails that there is an actual answer.

          • Stephen says:

            By all means; give me an example of information existing without matter.

          • Paradox says:

            Firstly, I don’t have to do that to prove that information is NOT material; All I have to do is prove that, despite depending on matter in order to exist (I never claimed that information exists independently of matter –why must you insist on semantic arguments?), it is Not Identical to any Medium, but is the same information, Regardless of what Media it is Recorded on. I think we can both see the logic behind this.

            As I have stated before:

            (Quote) We can take a song which is available on the internet [one medium], download it to a hard disk [a new medium], memorize it, put it onto paper. (End Quote)
            This IS the same information as when we found it on the internet, yes? It didn’t somehow become different information, every time we put it into a new storage system, did it? Is this information identical to any of these media? If information were material, it would be identical to one of these, correct? If not, you’re welcome to give your own interpretation (Even using something akin to the Mormon theory of what souls are made of works –I’m being perfectly serious here). As it is not identical to any particular group of particles, it is not material.

            A syllogism:
            1: If a piece of information were material, then it would be identical to a particular group of particles.
            2: No piece of information is identical to any group of particles.
            3: Therefore, no piece of information is material.

          • Stephen says:

            A song stored on a CD is not the same information as the same song stored as an mp3.
            The song exists as an arrangement of sound waves. The information these storage mediums hold is intructions on how to create that arrangement, instructions that vary according to the device.

          • Paradox says:

            And that objection does not refute my counter-argument. You are confusing the difference between codes with a difference in the actual information. The codes store information, but are not this information. If I translated the song into Spanish, German, or Greek, it would be the exact same song, the information would be the same as it was before, all that wold be different is how it is expressed.

            You have not refuted my argument.

          • Stephen says:

            If you translated it into another language, that would be different information, I don’t know how that isn’t clear.
            Really, you’re starting to sound incoherent.

          • Paradox says:

            It would not be different information.
            “The Snow is White,” and “Der Schness ist Wiess,” express the same proposition. “SNOW IS WHITE.”
            The meaning of the sentence (the information content) is the same. Unless you can prove OTHERWISE, I can confidently say that I have refuted you; there is a difference between codes, and the information they contain.

            That I need to point this out is just plain messed up.

            What I have said is perfectly coherent.

          • Stephen says:

            If there is a difference, it is one you have invented to hold onto a defunct argument.
            And stop claiming victory, it just looks like overcompensation.

          • Stephen says:

            The analogy of one idea expressed via different languages is exactly the same as the song stored on different mediums. If the idea is identical once it reaches the brain, regardless of language, then it exists in the brain as identical neurological information.
            This is getting tedious now.

          • Paradox says:

            I did not invent this difference. It has been recognized for centuries by philosophers everywhere.

            Secondly, this message exists in different brains (hence, different media which is it not identical to), and would even retain meaning if there were no brains to understand this meaning.

          • Ok, that’s enough you two.

  7. Citizen Ghost says:

    Why are the questions just for atheists?

    Most of these questions are no easier for theists to answer either. Or for that matter, Buddhists, agnostics, deists etc.

    1.What caused the universe to exist?

    Don’t know. But so as not to beg the question, isn’t the better question “how did the Universe come to exist?”

    2.What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

    The universe isn’t fine-tuned.

    3.Why is the universe rational?

    An irrational Universe would be unstable. Also, if the universe were NOT rational, how would we know?

    4.How did DNA and amino acids arise?

    Through chemical reactions. Theists scientist have the same answers here as atheist ones.

    5.Where did the genetic code come from?

    Same answer. More specfically, from the first self-replicating organisms. Do theists have a different answer?

    6.How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

    They’re not irreducibly complex. Again though, it’s hardly a question for atheists any more than anyone else.
    .
    ———————————————————

    9.How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

    Why shouldn’t it be possible? Again though, this is no more difficult for an atheist than for a theist.

    10.How do we account for self-awareness?

    The same way we account for any other cognitive trait. Again, the question isn’t any more difficult for nonbelievers.

    11.How is free will possible in a material universe?

    Not sure. Materialism may or may not entail determinism.

    12.How do we account for conscience?

    An evolved trait.

    13.On what basis can we make moral judgements?

    On an evolved sense of right and wrong.

    14.Why does suffering matter?

    Because humans are empathetic beings. But if life is eternal, then suffering really doesn’t matter.

    15.Why do human beings matter?

    In the grand scheme of things they don’t. They probably only matter to us.

    16.Why care about justice?

    Why not? Justice enables us to live as social beings.

    17.How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

    Our abiliity to perceive reality correctly is very limited. The question, however, merely appeals to consensus

    18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist?

    We don’t. The supernatural might exist.

    19.How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?

    I’m not sure we can. Again, the theist has no better answer to this.

    20.What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

    1. The empty tomb is a legend – not a historical fact.
    2. Reports of appearances probably ARE historical facts but no more exceptional than any widely reported paranormal phenomena. History is full of visions of dead people coming to life etc.
    3. The growth of the church is the TRULY remarkable story! (But so is the even more dramatic growth of Islam) But all it shows is how appealing Christianity was and is to many people. It only speaks to the ulitily of the idea, not to its truth.

  8. casey says:

    Why some of Steven’s and Citizen Ghost’s answers aren’t satisfying to a theist:

    1. What caused the universe to exist?

    CG: are you proposing that there isn’t necessarily a cause, even though science and reason both strongly lead us to that conslusion?

    2. What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

    S: the Anthropic principle is not even beginning to be an explanatory cause unless one holds to the unproved and unobservable multi-verse.

    CG: Even many atheist scientitst hold that the universe is fine tuned. Altering many of the constants, ;aws or ratios even a smidgeon reulsts ina a universe unable to form stars and therefore any life.

    3. Why is the universe rational?

    S and CG: your answers take us back to the last question. Why is a completely random universe rational vs. irrational?

    4. How did DNA and amino acids arise?

    S and CG: actually noone knows. Its assumed the pcoess is natural and chemical, not shown or proven. Actually its likelihood is incredibly unlikely.

    5. Where did the genetic code come from?

    CG: actually it must precede the first self replicating organism since it enables that function.

    9. How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

    CG: Its not difficult at all for a theist. The Mind made other minds. Describing it in only material terms are difficult in part because describing the mind itself in purely material terms is difficult.

    10. How do we account for self-awareness?

    see above

    11. How is free will possible in a material universe?

    S: A denial of free will is self defeating in that any truth assertion depends on the asserter to correctly evaluate and judge propositions for their truthfulness, something that isn’t possible without free will.

    CG: Its difficult to see how a purely materialist account of the universe and human beings could give rise to free will as many atheists concede.

    15. Why do human beings matter?

    S and CG: the answer seems to be that they don’t matter outside of each individual’s preference. Yet we treat the personal preference that they don’t matter with such prejudice. Why is one “right” and the other “wrong”?

    16. Why care about justice?

    It seems a more appropriate question would be “what is justice”? You both like it but probably would have a difficult time defining it from a naturalistic perspective.

    20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

    S: the question is more about the spread of christianity in its formative years – the first few decades – not 300 years later.

    CG: I would guess that we would say that the spread of Islam in its formative years is much more likely than Christianity. furthermore, the power of the question is that the three are tied together. Chritainity spread because of the empty tomb and resurrection appearances. The answer has to take all into account.

  9. Citizen Ghost says:

    I have no doubt that many of my answers are not satisfying to a theists. I don’t know the answers to some of these questions and so the answers are not entirely satifsying to me either.

    My point is that most of the questions are just as challenging (and the answers at least as unsatisfying) when answered by theists.

    For example, in response to the question of how independent thought is possible, you said “The Mind made other minds” as if that answers the question. How? Never mind that there is no scientific evidence to support this (and lots of evidence to refute it). You say this can’t be explained in materialistic terms. Can you give me some other terms then?

    I’ll try to address your other questions here:

    casey: “are you proposing that there isn’t necessarily a cause, even though science and reason both strongly lead us to that conslusion?”

    Actually, physicists disagree on that point. But that isn’t what I’m proposing anyway. I’m suggesting that the real question is “how did the universe come to be?” To seek to identify “the cause” of the universe (as if there is one and only one) is simply to beg the question.

    casey: “Even many atheist scientitst hold that the universe is fine tuned.”

    Not really. They say the universe APPEARS fine tuned. Yes, if you alter any number of constants or laws, life could not exist. That hardly qualifies as “fine-tuning.” If and when life goes extinct and/or the universe dies a heat death will you still say the universe is fine-tuned for life?

    Casey: “Its difficult to see how a purely materialist account of the universe and human beings could give rise to free will as many atheists concede.”

    Agreed. But it’s just as difficult – if not more so – to reconcile free will with a Diety that is Omniscient and Omnipotent – as many theologians and philosophers concede.

    casey: “It seems a more appropriate question would be “what is justice”? You both like it but probably would have a difficult time defining it from a naturalistic perspective.”

    Philosophers have been struggling with the definition of “justice” for centuries. I would challenge any theist to do a better job.
    .
    Casey: “I would guess that we would say that the spread of Islam in its formative years is much more likely than Christianity.”

    Why? An illterate shepard is visited by an archangel and convinces his family and everyone around him of God’s revelation and holy word – people are so persuaded that they become martyrs. It becomes the fastest growing and most widely spread religion in the history of the world. What could be less likely?

    “the power of the question is that the three are tied together. Chritainity spread because of the empty tomb and resurrection appearances. The answer has to take all into account.”

    Sure, all 3 are tied to the same story. But again, all that tells us is that it’s a very powerful (and useful) story that had an enormous impact.

    • casey says:

      “My point is that most of the questions are just as challenging (and the answers at least as unsatisfying) when answered by theists.”
      And I guess my point is that theists have the advantage of appealing to the supernatural – a force outside and transcendent to the universe as an explanation of things that does provide better answers to at least some of the questions, if its true.
      “For example, in response to the question of how independent thought is possible, you said “The Mind made other minds” as if that answers the question. How? Never mind that there is no scientific evidence to support this (and lots of evidence to refute it). You say this can’t be explained in materialistic terms. Can you give me some other terms then?”
      The point is that the mind seems to defy a purely naturalistic explanation. Maybe I’m wrong and it will ultimately be explained in merely materially terms. But if I’m right, the “how” may have a supernatural element that is beyond a material explanation…not a problem for a theistic worldview.
      “Actually, physicists disagree on that point. But that isn’t what I’m proposing anyway. I’m suggesting that the real question is “how did the universe come to be?” To seek to identify “the cause” of the universe (as if there is one and only one) is simply to beg the question.”
      The current scientific evidence as I understand it leads us to believe that there was nothing and then something. Space time began to exist at a definite point. The how would then necessarily involve an explanation transcendent to the universe. This is what theists have held to for millennia prior to science discovering it. There are other theories, yes, but ones with no evidence and possibly without hope for even observing evidence for. It’s not coercive proof for Theism but makes Theism even more probable than before Big Bang cosmology was generally accepted.
      “Not really. They say the universe APPEARS fine tuned. Yes, if you alter any number of constants or laws, life could not exist. That hardly qualifies as “fine-tuning.” If and when life goes extinct and/or the universe dies a heat death will you still say the universe is fine-tuned for life?”
      APPEARS…meaning as far as we know it IS fine tuned? If the laws, constants and ratios are a matter of chance then the chance of a life permitting universe is so incredibly improbable it’s statistically impossible. Even if life is only permitted for a few billion years it is still incredibly finely tuned given its extremely low probablity. There seems to be no evidence that this appearance of fine tuning is due to any kind of necessity.
      “Agreed. But it’s just as difficult – if not more so – to reconcile free will with a Diety that is Omniscient and Omnipotent – as many theologians and philosophers concede.”
      I know there is debate/discussion on this, but the majority of Christians have held to some degree of free will from the beginning. There have been explanations given such as Molinism, Compatibilism, Openness, etc. It seems to me the problem of free will is much more easily solved in Theism than in materialism.
      “Philosophers have been struggling with the definition of “justice” for centuries. I would challenge any theist to do a better job.”
      Divine Command Theory is what I hold to. I do think it rises above the critique of Eurythphro’s Dilemma…which is the only challenge I’m aware of.
      “Why? An illterate shepard is visited by an archangel and convinces his family and everyone around him of God’s revelation and holy word – people are so persuaded that they become martyrs. It becomes the fastest growing and most widely spread religion in the history of the world. What could be less likely?”
      Christianity.  Actually I don’t know enough about the beginning of Islam to argue this much further. One hunch I have is that the religion justified use of force and violence to propagate itself very much unlike early Christianity. This could make it more appealing. Also, I think it may be difficult to disprove someone’s private experiences but Christianity had public claims that could have been easily put to rest (e.g. an empty or not so empty tomb, a dead body, questioning of the 500 who saw the bodily resurrected Jesus).
      “Sure, all 3 are tied to the same story. But again, all that tells us is that it’s a very powerful (and useful) story that had an enormous impact.”
      It was in part powerful because the Jewish authorities could not present the body or occupied tomb of Jesus to quiet the reports of his resurrection appearances. That’s why it caught on so fast in Jerusalem, the very town he was publically executed and buried in.

      • Citizen Ghost says:

        “And I guess my point is that theists have the advantage of appealing to the supernatural – a force outside and transcendent to the universe as an explanation of things that does provide better answers to at least some of the questions, if its true.”

        The “if its true” is kind of a big one though. The criticism nontheists make is that taking refuge in the supernatural doesn’t explain anything – it’s a way of avoiding explanation.

        “The point is that the mind seems to defy a purely naturalistic explanation. Maybe I’m wrong and it will ultimately be explained in merely materially terms. But if I’m right, the “how” may have a supernatural element that is beyond a material explanation…not a problem for a theistic worldview.”

        OK, so it defies a naturalistic explanation. What then is the supernatural explanation? Certainly MY mind can’t create other minds. So how does THIS particular Mind create other minds? Again, it seems to me that the theistic worldvivew doesn’t have an answer either – it just chooses to avoid the questions.

        “Divine Command Theory is what I hold to. I do think it rises above the critique of Eurythphro’s Dilemma”

        How so?

        “It was in part powerful because the Jewish authorities could not present the body or occupied tomb of Jesus to quiet the reports of his resurrection appearances. That’s why it caught on so fast in Jerusalem, the very town he was publically executed and buried in.”

        What Jewish authorities? Is there any evidence to suggest that the Jewish authorities were disturbed by resurrection appearances? Did they know where Jesus was buried? Did they care? Were they even looking for this body? Is there any evidence for any of this? Of course not. But Christian Apologists routinely speculate that such authorities WOULD have produced Jesus body if they could based purely on what became known centuries later – that Christianity was not just any sect of Jewish Messianism but one that would grow into a world religion. This seems to be a circular case of using elements of the story to prove the truth of the same story.

        • clbirchcasey says:

          “The “if its true” is kind of a big one though. The criticism nontheists make is that taking refuge in the supernatural doesn’t explain anything – it’s a way of avoiding explanation.”

          In my view what we are doing is comparing the plausibility of explanations for life as we know from two opposing ultimate explanations of reality. You, from the atheist point of view that holds that there is nothing beyond nature/matter/energy. Me, from the Christian theist point of view which holds to a supernatural being whose existence is necessary and who is maximally great in terms of power, knowledge, goodness, etc. All three of the world’s great monotheistic religions I think agree with this description of God, though I can only really speak for the Christian view and perhaps a bit for the Jewish view. Indeed, if we (Christians and Jews) are correct then this God has revealed these things to us about his nature and character. I understand you aren’t going to find that as evidence but if we are right it’s not at all implausible.

          My arguments amount to this…that the atheistic worldview has a very difficult time accounting for reality while Christian theism explains the data well…even that the data infers theism.

          I cannot give a detailed explanation of how God creates or does eveyrthing,…it is outside the realm of scientific observation. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or absurd.

          “OK, so it defies a naturalistic explanation. What then is the supernatural explanation? Certainly MY mind can’t create other minds. So how does THIS particular Mind create other minds? Again, it seems to me that the theistic worldvivew doesn’t have an answer either – it just chooses to avoid the questions.”

          See above.

          “How so?”

          If God is maximally good then his commands necessarily reflect his nature and are the basis for goodness. Therefore his commands are not arbitrary as they are rooted in his nature. And they are not deemed good by confirming to some external standard of good, but by proceeding naturally from his own nature.

          I know you would ask “how do we know He is maximally good if He exists”? Since God is not subject to scientific observation we must look to other sources of knowledge. Of course we believe that God has revealed this through both direct communication and His interactions with people in history. I experience his goodness personally, though that is very subjective and not really useful here. Our innate knowledge of goodness can suggest an ultimate goodness as a source. Our ability to imagine an ultimately good being is evidence. A trained philosopher of religion would be able to have this section of the conversation better than me. 

          But I’m not so much arguing that God is ultimately good as much as saying that an ultimately good God is a much more plausible explanation for objective morality than any atheist explanation.

          “Is there any evidence for any of this? Of course not. But Christian Apologists routinely speculate that such authorities WOULD have produced Jesus body if they could based purely on what became known centuries later – that Christianity was not just any sect of Jewish Messianism but one that would grow into a world religion. This seems to be a circular case of using elements of the story to prove the truth of the same story.”

          On the contrary there is evidence…evidence that most historians take to be generally reliable. Mark, Q, M, L and the apostle Paul provide independent lines of historical evidence for the pertinent details under discussion. Some non-Christian sources also provide some basic corroborating evidence. General historic knowledge of 2nd Temple Judaism also gives us knowledge to back up some of the claims.

          “What Jewish authorities?”

          The Sadducees (high priest, et al) and Sanhedrin.

          “Is there any evidence to suggest that the Jewish authorities were disturbed by resurrection appearances?”

          Their persecution of the early Christian sect is evidence. Paul, a Pharisee himself, admits to it. The author of Acts details it. The gospel writers each record some independent details of the Jewish leaders’ opposition to Jesus. These facts are not disputed in mainstream historical scholarship.

          “Did they know where Jesus was buried? Did they care? Were they even looking for this body?”

          In the turbulent religious and political climate of 1st century Palestine the Jewish authorities were disturbed very much by threats to their authority and well-being. A resurrected Messiah not only offended their theology, but their position and the country’s stability as well. They would likely have done all they could to squelch the rapidly (this is consistent with the early Christian witness). If they could have simply proved Jesus was dead they would have and Christianity would have had a short life span or insignificant following since it depended on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

          Yet thousands in Jerusalem, where Jesus had just been killed, were believing against their own theology or philosophy that Jesus had been bodily resurrected on the testimony of many who had seen him. Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection at all. Pharisees believed only in one universal resurrection. Neither believed in a Messiah that would be killed. Greeks/Romans scoffed at the idea of a bodily resurrection in general. It’s not really explainable why so many Jews believed something against their own theology amidst persecution if it could be proven false by authorities for whom it was in their best interest to do so.

          • Citizen Ghost says:

            I appreciate the discussion very much but I fear we are “abusing” our host’s hospitality a bit by using the blog comment section to enlarge our discussion considerably. Rather than continuing to respond point-by-point, I’ll address 4 key items here.

            1. I completey agree that we are exploring/debating different explanations of reality. But there are far more than two competing hypothesis. For example, by no means would I rule out the possibility that there is some reality beyond matter or nature.(I’m inclined to believe that there is.) Nor has Christianity/Judiasm cornered the market on theist explanations – there may be any number of possibilities here.

            2. You acknowledge that you cannot give an explanation for how God does the things that God does. And that’s the point. That’s why theists don’t have better answers to many of those 20 questions. They are at least equally unsatisfactory.

            3. You haven’t resolved Eurythphro’s Dilemma. You defend Divine Command Theory by offering that the commands must be moral because they are rooted in God’s “maximally great” nature. In other words, the commands are good because they come from God and God’s nature is Good. Now you’ve run into 2 larger problems – the is/ought problem (Rooting morality in the descriptive) and a circular form of special pleading (“God is the source of goodness because…well, He’s God!”)

            4. I can appreciate the arguments you make with respect to morality and cosmology, but on the historical points, I’m sufficiently familiar with the the history of this period and the research in this area to recognize that you are engaging in wildly speculative stuff unsupported by historical evidence.

            When I offer the point that there’s not a shred of proof that Jewish authorities attempted to produce the body of Jesus (or even could have) you say that the early persecution of Christians IS the proof. Hardly. Of course apostates and heretics were routinely harrased or persecuted. Early Christianity was not unique in this regard. But you offer a theory by which unnamed Jewish authorities would have been motivated to find this body (never mind that digging up a decaying corpse would have violated the laws of that very Jewish authority) but there’s nothing to support it.

            For those who study history, the rhetorical questions you raise only lead to more problems deeper questions. If the failure to produce the body of this Messiah (as if that would have even been possible) is a persuasive point, why wasn’t it persuasive to Paul? Why didn’t he mention it in any of his writings?

            We can do this all day. But getting back to 20 questions, my points are these: 1) The last question isn’t for atheists – it’s for any non-Christian. 2) One can explain historical facts through accepted methods of historicity. But calling something a “historical fact” simply becaue it’s part of a religious narrative doesn’t make it one. 3) The early spread of Christianity is the one truly remarkable story. But again, that speaks to the popular appeal of Christianity in a highly superstitious age. It says nothing about its truth claims.

  10. Have you see these answers to the question, WK?

    ‎1.What caused the universe to exist? No one knows, you are guessing God

    2.What explains the fine tuning of the universe? No one knows, you are guessing God

    3.Why is the universe rational? Is it? Have you studied Quantum Physics?

    4.How did DNA and amino acids arise? They naturally form in the right conditions as proven experimentally

    5.Where did the genetic code come from? No one knows, you are just guessing God

    6.How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve? There are no irreducibly complex enzyme chains.

    7.How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families? If you look at the linguistic literature you will find a lovely set of evolutionary patterns that show how it happened

    8.Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC? the proper development of agriculture allowed for larger populations of humans.

    9.How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity? what does this question even mean?

    10.How do we account for self-awareness? Complex neural networks produce self-awareness as echoed in other mammals

    11.How is free will possible in a material universe? It isn’t, we don’t have free will

    12.How do we account for conscience? Complex neural networks produce “conscious”

    13.On what basis can we make moral judgements? By evolved social values

    14.Why does suffering matter? Because we don’t want that to happen to us so we help others

    15.Why do human beings matter? Because they are like us, it is a misfiring of kin selection

    16.Why care about justice? because we are evolved social creatures

    17.How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural? we are pattern seeking and impose patterns where there are none.

    18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist? no evidence of it, when it was investigated by the parapsychology depts in the 80s they found nothing.

    19.How can we know if there is conscious existence after death? we don’t but there is no evidence that you continue after death

    20.What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church? The empty tomb and appearances are second hand account of eye witness testimony and hardly convincing. The growth of the church is easy to explain after it became the state religion of Rome, before that it had good sales people.

    • WaterRat says:

      Those read like a series of knee-jerk responses by an atheist who is annoyed that any rational person could have doubts about materialism or Darwinism. I’ll just address a few, personally. 4, 6 and 7 in particular betray absolute lack of knowledge about what has actually been shown in science and historical research. I’d have to guess that he or she is using the old Miller-Urey experiment as the basis for the answers provided and is unaware of what was actually shown and whether the atmosphere used is correct or not. I can’t remember who it was that I was reading at the time, but that person recounted that when the experiment was re-run with an updated version of the old atmosphere, you got things like formaldehyde and cyanide. Not exactly conducive to life, there. I need to go dig that back up. More to the point, though, even if I grant that some of these things can self-assemble (though that has not been observed in nature in most cases), that is a long, long ways from having a viable cell, much less complex multi-celled organisms.

      18 ignores all evidence about supernatural healing and other such events – the evidence of the sort of things that have gone on in Africa are particularly startling to the rationalist West, but it’s pretty clear that in at least some occasions someone was healed immediately of a dreadful illness or injury without the intervention of a doctor. These are impossible in a materialist world, so the materialists dismiss them a priori as impossible without ever weighing the occurrences on the merits of each occasion – an intellectually dishonest position. I’m not saying all claims are true – many are false. I’m also not saying that all miracle claims are performed in God’s name. I am saying some of them are true, and if even one of these is true, it disproves materialism. A truly rational thinker would examine the data and conclude there may be something to this, not just dismiss it out of hand.

      Atheists make many appeals to processes we have never observed, and in many cases whose only proof of correctness is that it might explain what we see, to make their points. Or they say that our existence is proof that it worked. I love when they pull this one out – one’s existence can be used to prove ANYTHING. My last encounter regarding evolution/design ended because the person in question flatly denied any position of mine had any validity because I disagreed with him. He ignored all evidences of design, probability, not to mention the absolute lack of corroboration of many of his own views in the science as we currently understand it. Ah well, such is life.

  11. Great article that asks very challenging questions to atheists!

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