Twenty Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer?

I don’t usually respond directly to apologists’ blogs, but I’m responding to this post because I believe it’s indicative of the typical tactics apologists employ. Below, you’ll find a list of questions that atheists allegedly struggle to answer, along with my brief responses. First, however, a general comment about the majority of these questions. They’re loaded with assumptions. Thus, the first thing to do is discard many of the mistaken assumptions that stand behind the questions. They’re also almost exclusively ‘God of the gaps’ type questions. They trade on the inability of science (thus far) to explain a given phenomenon and then imply that we’re justified in inferring that God did it. This fallacy is called the appeal to ignorance. Moreover, even if no scientific explanations are forthcoming, this does nothing to overcome the many problematic aspects of theistic explanations. To quote Jan Narveson at length:

“It ought to be regarded as a major embarrassment to natural theology that the very idea of something like the universe’s being ‘created’ by some minded being is sufficiently mind-boggling that any attempt to provide a detailed account of how it might be done is bound to look silly, or mythical, or a vaguely anthropomorphized version of some familiar physical process …. For the fundamental idea is that some infinitely powerful mind simply willed it to be thus, and, as they say, Lo! it was so! If we aren’t ready to accept that as an explanatory description  — and we should not be, since it plainly doesn’t explain anything, as distinct from merely asserting it was in fact done — then where do we go from there? On all accounts, we at this point meet up with mystery” (Jan Narveson, “God by Design?” in God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Science, ed. N.A. Manson (London Routledge, 2003) pp. 93 — 94).

This general criticism is applicable to all theistic explanations, including the ones given to the following questions. But without further ado, here are the questions atheists supposedly struggle to answer.

1. What caused the universe to exist?

This is a very naive question. A naive answer would be ‘We don’t know.’ Do we even know if the universe requires a cause? Is the ‘universe’ a concrete thing that requires an explanation? Or is it a catch-all term, an abstract category? One of my frustrations with this discussion is the confusion between these two definitions. Atheists can give straightforward, naturalistic explanations for almost every concrete object (people, penguins, planets, stars, etc.), but then theists say something like, “yes, yes, you can give explanations for all of those things, but I’m talking about an explanation of everything” i.e. the set of all concrete things. But that’s not a ‘thing’ in any relevant sense. Steven Maitzen has done some important work on this problem. However, even if the universe is a concrete thing that requires a cause, unless our universe exhausts all physical reality, there’s no reason to think that the cause could not lie in some temporally prior physical state. Physicists continue to explore this option.

2. What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

I’ve responded to the fine tuning argument at length in a previous post. Quickly, there may be more than one universe. The variables may not be independent of each other; there may be a deeper law that explains the values of the cosmological constants. The probabilities may be inscrutable.

3. Why is the universe rational?

The universe is not rational. I take it he means ‘intelligible.’ There are various responses to this question. Briefly, any universe capable of supporting intelligent life would need to have stable laws of physics (the very point the fine tuning argument makes). As such, there is a self-selecting effect at work. Any universe capable of producing intelligent life would have laws and since we evolved in this environment, natural selection has made us adept at recognizing these regularities. I suspect the theist would then run a version of Lewis’s argument from rationality or Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. I can’t respond to those at length here, but to merely claim that non-rational matter could not produce rational creatures is to beg all of the important questions in this debate.

4. How did DNA and amino acids arise?

Science is still working on this one. The best current theory for the origin of DNA is called the RNA-world theory. Google it.

5. Where did the genetic code come from?

Once the first replicators are in place (re: question 4) the code develops via copying errors and selective pressures.

6. How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

I’m not a scientist, but the assumption behind the question is that enzyme chains are ‘irreducibly complex.’ I suspect the scientific consensus is against enzymes, or anything else for that matter, being irreducibly complex.

7. How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?

Ask a linguist. There’s a lot of work being done on the origin of human language. Should we preempt this scholarship with a “God did it?”

8. Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?

I’m puzzled why this question is even on the list. In addition to Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer do we need to add Urban Planner? Nonetheless, the rise of cities wasn’t all that sudden. It followed the rise of agriculture and smaller villages and places of trade.

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

This looks like a variation on question 3. I’m not sure what he means by ‘independent thought.’ Does he mean ‘rational’? I’ve dealt with that one. Does he mean independent as in ‘free’? I’ll deal with that one below.

10. How do we account for self-awareness?

A lot of work has been done in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and psychology that sheds light on this question. It would be reckless to say that we’ve got the answer nailed down, but we’re making progress. My tentative position on this issue is called functionalism. Essentially, once matter reaches a sufficient level of complexity, as in the human brain, those neural patterns create a sort of feedback loop that we call ‘self-awareness’ or ‘consciousness.’ I’m optimistic that this will be reproduced in non-human ‘brains’ in the future. Artificial intelligence research is a young field, but a promising one. If we can reverse engineer consciousness, that will be empirical proof that we needn’t invoke God to explain it.

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

Maybe it isn’t. Or maybe some form of compatibilism is true. I have no stake in whether or not libertarian, or contra-causal, free will turns out to be true.

12. How do we account for conscience?

I’d like a tighter definition of ‘conscience’ here. If he means how we determine right from wrong, I deal with that in the next question. If he means feelings of guilt or approbation, these can be readily explained in terms of societal taboos and norms. Nothing particularly mysterious here.

13. On what basis can we make moral judgements?

That depends on whether you’re an emotivist, consequentialist, deontologist, etc. There are any number of possible secular bases for moral judgments and these have been discussed and debated at length. Take an introductory philosophy course. I suspect that any of these options are preferable to relying on alleged divine commands in Bronze Age texts to inform our moral judgments.

14. Why does suffering matter?

It’s clear why it matters to the sufferer and to those who care about her. It doesn’t matter to the universe.

15. Why do human beings matter?

Again, we matter to each other. Can we be expected to believe that in the absence of religious faith all of our familial bonds, friendships, and general solidarity with the human race would disappear? Again, we don’t matter to the universe.

16. Why care about justice?

Because we’re not sociopaths. We live in societies and obviously have a stake in whether or not they are just.

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

There’s lots of material on this question. Let’s start with the fact that we’re Hyperactive Agent Detection Devices because it aids our survival and reproduction. If we think there’s a tiger in the grass and it turns out that there is no tiger, no harm, no foul. But if we don’t think there’s a tiger in the grass and it turns out that there is a tiger, we’re in trouble. So we tend to detect agents everywhere and this quite naturally leads to animism, then polytheism, etc. A better question for the theist would be ‘How do we account for the fact that theism is not universal?’ If theism is true, and we have a ‘divine sense,’ you’d think it would be more reliable in steering us toward (mono)theism as opposed to animism or polytheism.

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

We don’t. This question is better directed toward the theist since he shoulders the burden of proof. I don’t have to show that the supernatural does not exist. He needs to show that it does.

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

We can study consciousness and the brain through various disciplines (philosophy of mind, cog sci, neurobiology, computer science, etc,) and come to some conclusions about the dependence of consciousness on the brain. Given current research, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about the prospect of conscious existence after death, but I haven’t completely ruled it out. If my optimism regarding AI turns out to be justified, we may be able to extend our consciousness beyond bodily death. We wouldn’t need God or a soul to do it though.

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

This question assumes that the empty tomb is a historical fact, which I’m not willing to concede. The resurrection appearances can be explained by hallucinations interpreted in apocalyptic religious terms. The growth of the church can be explained by a number of factors. The Romans had set the stage nicely by establishing a universal language in which the NT could be written and circulated and building roads to facilitate Paul’s missionary exploits. The church also caught a break when Constantine converted and made Christianity the religion of the Empire. Moreover, the fact that a religion grows is surely no guarantee of its truth. Islam and Mormonism have experienced impressive growth from humble beginnings too.

I don’t claim that these answers are exhaustive. Feel free to offer your own responses or counter-responses in the comments. The purpose of this exercise was not to be thorough, but to show that it’s relatively easy to at least sketch an answer to these questions that atheists supposedly ‘struggle’ with. I didn’t even break a sweat.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Twenty Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer?

  1. can u also come answer my question-ire….http://bittersweetend.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/the-atheist-challenge/

    Thanks

    (It’s much shorter.)

  2. Pingback: 20 Questions for Atheists « Biblical Scholarship

  3. Science is still working on this one.

    That’s the main difference between science and believe: science isn’t complete (yet, but I think it will never be) and tries to expand knowledge continously, whilst believe cannot deal with uncertainty and incomplete knowledge.

  4. Pingback: Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer: How theism does better on the first six | Truth2Freedom's Blog

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