Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Answers for Creationists

Last night Bill Nye faced off with Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis fame) in a lengthy debate over creationism and science.  I caught only the last half hour or so, and unfortunately I found it to be less-than-illuminating.  Perhaps it was the sheer exhaustion of such a long debate, but by the time I tuned in I found Nye's answers to be a bit rambling and failing to adequately address the implications of the questions (he gave an admirable explanation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for instance, but he failed to point out the fallacy of the question's crux).  Nevertheless, I admire Nye for his willingness to go into the lion's den and speak science to those who would ordinarily have no interest in it.  

This morning BuzzFeed provided a photo series of creationists with their questions for Bill Nye.  Obviously I am not Bill Nye, but as a scientist I thought I could try to answer them.  It's interesting looking at these photographs... none of these people strike you as unintelligent, back woods people with their heads in the sand.  They appear perfectly capable of listening to rational arguments, so it isn't necessarily a fool's errand trying to answer their questions.  Anyway, here goes:

1. Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?
Science education is unambiguously positive for children, even in cases where the science curriculum may be at odds with your personal beliefs.  We live in a complicated world, where people hold a wide variety of views, and it is no service at all to shield children from such disagreements.  As Carl Sagan once said, "science is more than a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking."  The idea is, we look at the world and question it, try to make sense of it, refuse to take things at face value or blindly follow authority.  The great thing about science is, it's open to everyone.  If you think a scientific theory is in error, you have every right to test it and try to overturn it.  But for your work to be accepted by the scientific community, it must be rigorously tested, independently verified, and shown to be in good accordance with the facts.

Science is not about indoctrination.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Skepticism is crucial for the process, so there is absolutely no problem at all with students who do not fully trust a science teacher simply because he or she says something is true.  The key is, though, this sort of skepticism must be brought equally to every assertion about the origin of our Universe, or the origin of species.  It is not good science to be skeptical of what is taught in the science classroom and then to turn around and not show equal skepticism of what is taught in the church.  If you are truly interested in finding the answers, you must question boldly even your most cherished beliefs.

2. Are you afraid of a Divine Creator?
It's a little difficult to be afraid of something for which you see no evidence.  But if you're an agnostic, perhaps you leave open the door for the possibility of a deity, even if you think the typical Judeo-Christian version of such a deity is likely to be grossly inaccurate.  What then?  Well, this really just boils down to a fear of death, doesn't it?  A fear of the unknown.  It's easy enough to fear some sort of Divine Retribution maybe waiting for us on the other side, but is this any more likely than Divine Forgiveness?  Can the Bible offer any assurances on this matter one way or another?  Not really.  Like so many issues addressed in the Bible, there are no clear answers.

I think we all have felt the fear of death at some point in our lives, and perhaps we would be tempted to go along with Pascal's Wager (might as well bet on the existence of a God, because if he does exist you're in good shape, and if he doesn't it won't make much difference).  Well, fine.  But if you see no evidence for a creator, how can you know what he or she or it desires?  The Bible could contain the answers, but it has major internal inconsistencies.  In terms of governing one's own behavior, the best bet is to go with what you personally believe to be morally correct, but then, how is this any different from adhering to a moral code outside of a belief in a God?

3. Is it completely illogical that earth was created mature?  i.e. trees created with rings... Adam created as an adult...
Is it illogical that God would create trees fully mature, complete with rings?  Well yes, a little.  Why would God plant so much evidence of an old Earth if it weren't really an old Earth?  It seems to me very illogical indeed.  It clearly implies that he is trying to trick us all into deducing the wrong answer.  You may say, "well, God is mysterious, we don't know why he does what he does," but that's really a cop out, don't you think?  This little explanation may be fine with your belief system, but it certainly has no real explanatory power.

Of course, we're not really worried about trees older than six thousand years old, we're worried about rocks that are much older than that.  Radiometric dating is a fabulous tool, and by calibrating a number of different metrics (including tree rings) we really can tell how old something is within a small margin of error.  But this question goes beyond tree rings; for instance, was the light from distant galaxies (or even stars in our own galaxy) already en route when God created the Universe six thousand years ago?  There again I must ask, why should God want us to find so much evidence against a young Earth?  This seems to be at odds with the Christian understanding of God as a loving father.

4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?
No, it does not.  This question refers to the supposed contradiction that we see an increase in order (or a decrease in entropy) on the Earth, while the second law of thermodynamics calls for an increase of entropy in a closed system.  The problem here is that the Earth is not a closed system... it enjoys a ceaseless supply of energy from the Sun.  Furthermore there is absolutely no requirement that entropy increases everywhere... rather, the overall entropy must increase in a closed system, but again, our planet is not a closed system.  Clearly there are ordered things all around us, so it sounds like the beef here is with the second law of thermodynamics, not with its implications for evolution.  Frankly, the 2nd law of thermodynamics doesn't have anything to do with evolution.

5. How do you explain a sunset if their [sic] is no God?
The Earth rotates on its axis and the Sun crosses the sky, eventually setting in the west.  As the light passes through more atmosphere at the end of the day than it does at midday, the light becomes redder and dimmer.  As we all know, these rather simple mechanisms are capable of producing some breathtaking vistas.  

But the question isn't really asking about mechanics.  It's asking about beauty in our world.  But why is God the only explanation for beauty?  Can we not appreciate a sunset, or a waterfall, or a dandelion, on our own?  Do we need God to appreciate a piece of music, or an exquisite sculpture?  I don't see how this adds anything to our appreciation of these things.  Perhaps this interpretation adds to your admiration of God, but this seems to me a different matter entirely.  

6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?
The laws of thermodynamics do not debunk the Big Bang Theory.  I would refer the reader to these excellent discussions of the issue.  

7. What about noetics?
I'm having difficulty answering this question because it is so vague.  Is the question about whether consciousness is proof of a creator?  I would have to say that it hardly constitutes any proof at all.  We cannot just be amazed by things in our world and ascribe it to a creator, and then say, "well, there's no way it could be that way without a creator."  The brain, which is the seat of our consciousness and our intelligence, is certainly a remarkable organ, and science has yet to fully grasp the scope of its mechanisms.  But is it not just a extremely complex computer, receiving input from the world and selecting bodily actions based on that input?  We feel like we are individuals, with unique gifts and thoughts, but our past experiences are also unique to us, as are our genetics, so why can't we have unique reactions based on an incredibly complicated and personalized behavioral algorithm?  And does it not say something about the material (rather than spiritual) aspect of the brain, that so much of our behavior is wrapped up in chemistry?  Add a little alcohol, or THC, or Xanax, and we feel very different indeed.  This points to underlying physical mechanisms.  The key is, could our brains have evolved from less sophisticated brains, brains that were capable of a great deal but not quite as much as our own?  The evidence suggests that the answer is yes.  

8. Where do you derive objective meaning in life?
No scientist claims to have an objective meaning of life in mind.  We may all have subjective ideas about why we're here, or whether there is any reason at all that we're here.  But science is not after an objective meaning of life.  

9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate?  By chance?
Scientists are currently engaged in trying to answer the question of how life arose on the Earth.  There are some exciting hypotheses out there, yet to be proved, but the key here is that single-celled organisms did not by any means fall together by chance.  The first stirrings of life would have been much more simple than a single-celled organism... it was probably some very basic organic chemistry, a rather simple molecule that eventually was able to make crude copies of itself from the other molecules in a primordial ocean or in nutrient-rich clays.  Remember that the DNA molecules in every cell of your body are constantly making copies of themselves, and this is just chemistry guiding these processes.  The first self-replicating molecules would not have been nearly so complex as the modern DNA strand, but if they could reproduce themselves and be subject to natural selection, that's enough to get things going.  

10.  I believe in the Big Bang Theory... God said it and BANG it happened!
Ah, I see what you did there.  Very clever.  

11. Why do evolutionists / secularists / humanists / non-God believing people reject the idea of their [sic] being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?
Someone may be watching a little too much H2.  Most scientists do not believe in the so-called "ancient aliens" hypothesis.  Some scientists do believe the seeds of life could have been brought to Earth from elsewhere via comet or asteroid (from another part of the solar system, perhaps, or even another star system), but these hypotheses are ultimately consistent with the idea of abiogenesis.  The question is only where the origin of life first occurred, here or elsewhere (I tend to think the former is by far the more likely).  

12. There is no in-between... the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds for an "official proof."
There are many more early hominid fossils besides Lucy.  Scientists have learned a great deal about our origin by studying these fossils, but there are still some questions to be answered.  Since DNA breaks down very quickly after the death of an organism, it can be difficult to construct a family tree for human beings based on DNA analysis alone.  Older techniques, like studying skeletal morphology, have to be employed.  These techniques are quite rigorous themselves, but may leave some ambiguity.  Nevertheless, it's clear that all these fossils, which show evidence of bipedalism and a trend toward modern human features (larger brain case, flatter face, etc), are hundreds of thousands or millions of years old.  The evidence is in the rocks, and in the bones themselves, measurable by radiometric dating.  

13.  Does metamorphosis help support evolution?
I had to look this one up.  There are really two ideas behind this question.  One is that, historically, metamorphosis was linked to the concept of evolution.  But the two processes are really quite different, so this pre-Darwin understanding about change in organisms should have nothing to do with our modern version of the theory.  Second, the metamorphosis that some animals undergo (for example, the caterpillar's metamorphosis into a butterfly) is supposedly an example of irreducible complexity.  Irreducible complexity has been shown to be wrong time and time again, but this will never satisfy those who seek to prove creationism or intelligent design.  So long as there is any organism displaying a yet-poorly-understood characteristic, it is likely to be seized upon as evidence of irreducible complexity.  Suffice it to say, the track record of irreducible complexity under scrutiny is not good, and should give pause to anyone advancing such ideas.  

14. If Evolution is a theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact.
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.  One need only go to any natural history museum and examine the wealth of skeletons of creatures from many different epochs.  The evolution of fish, reptiles, mammals, birds -- the relationships between modern organisms and their early ancestors are unmistakable.  And the mechanism for evolution -- natural selection -- is also demonstrably true.  The rise of so-called superbugs (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) makes it clear that organisms undergo evolution.  For example, suppose a given antibiotic can kill 99% of bacteria in a population.  That leaves just 1% of the original population, but all of these surviving bacteria will have something in common: antibiotic resistance.  When they reproduce, all of their progeny will receive this trait as well, and presto, we have a new population of bacteria fundamentally different from their ancestors, a population forged from the pressures of survival.

Well ok, but what about morphological differences?  These bacteria might be marginally different from their parents, but you can't make big changes can you?  Well of course you can.  Just look at the enormous variety of dogs that we humans have produced over the last few hundred years.  Different breeds of dog can look astonishingly different from one another, and all we had to do was encourage the breeding of some varieties and discourage the breeding of others.  Given the changes we can make in only a hundred years or so, just imagine what nature is capable of given a billion years.  

15. Because science by definition is a "theory" -- not testable, observable nor repeatable -- why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?
This is incorrect.  Science requires testability, observability and repeatability.  Anything that does not fit these requirements is not good science, and that includes creationism.  

16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?
Have you ever invented a new word to describe something?  Or can you recall a word you learned that was only recently created?  Language is a dynamic process, and new words are created all the time that carry new meanings.  We have a standard library of letters or sounds from which to construct new words, just as the DNA molecule has base-pair "letters" in which new genetic information can be encoded.

But this is only an analogy.  The DNA molecule is the carrier of genetic information.  It is a spectacularly sophisticated little molecule, but it is just a molecule, made up of atoms and subject to the laws of chemistry and physics.  But these laws have amazing consequences.  The extraordinary diversity of chemistry's manifestations should speak to the stupefyingly large potential of DNA.  

Consider just one example from chemistry.  Nitrogen gas makes up 78% percent of the air we breathe.  Carbon is the basis of all living creatures on this planet.  Clearly neither of these atoms are harmful to human beings.  But put carbon and nitrogen together and you get cyanide, a deadly poison.  Why should this pairing of two innocuous substances be so different from the sum of its parts?  Because that's how chemistry works.  All around us we see that different arrangements of atoms can have astonishingly different results.

More to the point, we see that the DNA molecule is capable of coding for an incredible array of characteristics in organisms.  But clearly there had to be some time at which these characteristics were not present in Earth's biodiversity... for example, there were no wings, no feathers, no eyes, no bones, in the early days of the Earth when there was nothing but single-celled organisms.  The information for these things had to arise at some point after the beginning of life on Earth.  But none of these characteristics arose spontaneously.  They would have evolved, like any other feature, very gradually, and based on survival pressures.  

17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in Salvation?
Again, science does not purport to provide an objective meaning of life.  Even so, scientists all certainly have their own ideas about what they should do with their lives.  It seems clear that most of them have committed themselves to understanding the secrets of nature, and enriching the world with those discoveries.  To me this is as high a calling as any.  But we need not believe that we were "put" here for any particular reason.  We happen to be here, and it's up to each of us to figure out how best we can spend our brief time walking the Earth.  

18. Why have we found only one "Lucy", when we have found more than 1 of everything else?
Well, if you mean we only found one early hominid called Lucy, that's correct.  Lucy is a single fossil skeleton.  But we have found many early hominids from different periods in our past, and put together they paint a clear picture of the evolution of human beings, over the course of a few million years.  

19. Can you believe in "the big bang" without "faith"?
If there is one thing all scientists have "faith" in, it is the scientific process.  It is self-correcting, and has proved to be extraordinarily powerful in unlocking the mysteries of our world.  This faith, then, leads to a general willingness to accept ideas that are shown after painstaking work to be in best accordance with the facts.  In the case of the Big Bang, we have a few independent lines of evidence.  We have the expansion of the Universe as discovered by Hubble.  If you run the clock back, at some point some 13.7 billion years ago all the matter of the Universe is compressed into a tiny space.  Then we have the Cosmic Microwave Background... leftover radiation from the early Universe, rippling down the corridors of space-time.  If there is another interpretation of these facts, I'm open to hearing them, but so far the Big Bang is the best explanation available to science.  

20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone created / thought of it?  It's Amazing!!!
Yes indeed, the world is amazing.  But scientists need not rely on belief of an omnipotent creator in order to appreciate our world's beauty.  In fact, many scientists would say that the evolution of our Universe, from the primordial fires of the Big Bang to the present, is all the more astonishing in that it was not directed or preordained, but arose simply from natural processes.  How amazing is that?!

21. Relating to the big bang theory ... where did the exploding star come from?
Well there was no "exploding star" per se, but the question is really asking about the Universe before the Universe.  Cosmologists are still wrestling with these questions, and a number of hypotheses have been advanced.  But did there have to be something before the Universe?  And what is the meaning of a location in space, or an object / singularity / deity / whatever existing outside the Universe?  These are not easy questions.  But we must be cautious when dealing with these fantastic ideas of physics.  Consider the famous double-slit experiment, where photons (which we sometimes think of as particles) behave like waves.  Even when a single photon is fired into the apparatus, it displays constructive and destructive interference.  What do we make of this?  It's certainly mind-bending stuff, to think of something simultaneously as a wave and as a particle.  Or consider time-dilation, a proven side effect of traveling at speeds that are a significant fraction of the speed of light.  Why should time slow down because we're moving?  It hardly makes any sense from our low-velocity experiences here on Earth.  The point is, in the quantum world or the cosmological world, there can be phenomena that utterly defy our everyday instincts of what is and isn't possible.  But we simply cannot trust our everyday experiences in these realms, as they are so very different.  

22. If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?
We did not come from monkeys.  We share a distant ancestor with monkeys, but we evolved alongside and are more closely related to other hominids, like gorillas and chimpanzees.  Just like a family tree, the tree of life branches so that two species can be descended from a single ancestor species.  But evolution can be more dynamic than this, because of its driving mechanism.  When two populations become isolated for an extended period, they will no longer interbreed and may experience different survival pressures based on their respective habitats.  After many generations, they may be distinctly different from each other in appearance and genetic makeup.  But this does not require that both species have drifted by equal amounts from the ancestor population.  One population may resemble the ancestor very closely while the other may have drifted away considerably.  We may say that our ancient ancestors (Homo habilis, say) looked a lot like modern gorillas or chimpanzees (low forehead, protruding jaw, etc).  So we look quite different from Homo habilis, while other primates still share many of these traits.  But again, these characteristics are dictated by the survival pressures exerted on every species, and this in no way causes a problem for evolution by natural selection.

Well, that's it.  I hope it's been helpful.


  1. Welcome!
    You're missed for the last year or so.
    Keep on posting, please!

  2. I thought you were lost in space. Glad you've made Earthfall.

  3. Ah the good old second law of thermodynamics. Assuming they accept the second law of TM, what is their God doing creating increased disorder?