Understanding Evolution

3 04 2007

Once again, I’ve been drawn into debate with creationists, and it got me thinking about how I understand evolution. While some of my opponents have suggested that I’ve somehow been brainwashed by the public school system, a materialist culture, etc., this is far from the truth. In reality, I never received much of a public school education when it came to evolution, the topic receiving only a week’s worth of biology classes during my junior and senior years, and then not again until I specifically took courses on evolution later in college. Why, then, am I so enthusiastic about it?

I don’t remember much of my childhood, but my parents regularly tell me how I was enthralled with elephants as a young boy. I would watch them on TV documentaries, wear a safari hat everywhere, and pretend that I was hunting elephants (I called the imaginary gun my “mover”, because when it went off the elephants moved). This, of course, gave way to dino-mania, and I often pleaded my parents to stay up to ungodly hours taping the Christopher Reeves, Gary Owens, and Walter Chroncite-hosted dinosaur specials on a regular basis. None of this, however, would have come to pass without a few trips to the American Museum of Natural History, and I’ll never forget seeing the “Brontosaurus” skeleton towering above me in the dim fossil hall for the first time; I swear I could hear the ghost of the beast breathing.

While I continued to be enthralled with dinosaurs throughout my life, I realized that I lived far from famous fossil sites in the badlands and there didn’t seem to be much opportunity for me to end up being a paleontologist. My interests shifted to sharks for a number of years, waxing and waning throughout early college, until I ultimately began to devote myself to broader evolutionary studies in May of last year. As you can tell, however, all through my life I’ve had an intense interest in the natural world and how life came to be, learning about more weird creatures (extinct and extant) than most people my age seem to be familiar with. I wasn’t told about evolution and accepted it outright; I saw it in the animals I loved so much. Indeed, evolution was so starkly apparent that I can’t really think of a time when I did not somehow understand it; how else would the vast diversity and unity of life come to be? I was even disappointed when my wife (girlfriend at the time) told me that one of my hypotheses had already been discovered long ago; there seemed to be increases in evolutionary rates and diversity following mass extinctions in the fossil record, and as always it seems, Gould beat me to the punch before I was even born.

To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even heard of creationism or intelligent design until I was barred from teaching evolution to 5th grade students last year as a part of a college course designed to correct scientific misconceptions in elementary schools. I remember being somewhat agast and infuriated: “What kind of backward person doesn’t believe in evolution?” Apparently, there was much I didn’t know. Even though evolution seemed apparent to me in everything I saw, I didn’t really study it or try to gain a better understanding. It was almost like common sense; of course evolution produced me, you, the cat, and every other organism in earth’s history.

Now, even though I’ve begun amassing a library on evolution and related topics, after reading seemingly innumerable books, articles, and websites on the topic in the past year, the greatest evidence I see for evolution does not come from any text I know of, but rather from what I have come to understand about nature. Whenever I go to the Bronx Zoo, I don’t just look at the animals as they are now, but wonder what made the cheetah different from other big cats, why the gorillas are so much like us, how the spoonbill wound up with such feeding equipment, all the while recognizing that these animals are all built on a tetrapod body plan that arose hundreds of millions of years ago. Simply put, there’s no way that I can ignore evolution; every creature practically screams such a conclusion at the observer. This isn’t some idea that I’m just going along with because I have an active imagination or have been unknowingly indoctrinated; even before I could truly understand it, it was blatantly obvious to me and has become even more so now that I’ve made an effort to educate myself.

In any event, I know this post was likely not very interesting, but I just felt the need to share my own personal evolution. It is not enough to know what someone thinks, but also why they think it and what factors may be influencing those ideas, and if nothing else this has been a practice of full-disclosure so that others can understand why I have the passion for the subject that I now hold. Hopefully I’ll be able to inspire a similar thirst for knowledge in others, but even if I do not, I still can’t think of what else I would be better suited to do.


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12 responses

4 04 2007
TheBrummell

Well said! I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head – it’s about the evidence, which is blatantly obvious for any who wishes to look for it. The word “projection” springs to mind when I see a cretinist accusing someone of being ‘brainwashed’.

…this post was likely not very interesting…

On the contrary, this post was very interesting, to me. Thanks for sharing.

4 04 2007
Chris Harrison

Cool background information on you Brian. I didn’t know you were married! That’s awesome.
You’ve inspired me, so I think I’ll post about how I became interested in evolution later today. My story is quite a bit different that yours.

Oh, and next time you hook one from the anti-evolution crowd, invite them to the evolution/creation forum at iidb.org. The format on the page you linked to looks absolutely horrible for fisking an argument, and the people at Infidels are very knowledgeable.

4 04 2007
Laelaps

[…] Understanding Evolution […]

4 04 2007
SaraMichelle

Interesting…I have just begun reading some of your posts and I’ve noticed the oft repeated claim that there is and can be no evidence for “creationism.” In some sense, that’s right, but in another sense, you just that it is wrong.

First, by way of introduction since this is my first comment here, I am neither a creationist nor an evolutionist nor any sort of scientist. I was raised by creationist parents and have believed the creation story since a young age. At present I am undecided. More than anything, and please listen to this Brian…I am extremely frustrated by the type of arguments on both sides of the debate. I am semi-well read on related topics from paleontology to genetics to the corresponding creationist arguments and it has been my experience that both sides straw man the other side’s arguments to the extreme. There is no intelligent debate to be found and I, a non-scientist, wander around searching for an unbiased and reasoned perspective. Since your goal is to educate, I encourage you to do so without the desperation and spite that is usually found in the arguments of all who engage in this debate.

Okay, sorry to be so long winded. Here’s my actual comment:

Just as, for you, nature and the animals are intuitive evidence of evolution and you see that the existence and variety and similarity between these species FITS with the theory of evolution, IN THE SAME WAY creationists perceive that the very existence of the cosmos, any robust notion of “responsibility”, “choice”, and “understanding”, and such details as appreciation of the “beauty” of a harsh and jagged landscape, FIT with an intelligent origin. I am not advocating anything in particular, but I find it frustrating that evolutionists repeatedly dismiss creationist arguments as fallacious “arguments from ignorance.” While it is true that ASSUMING creationism is true will discourage the search for natural explanations in many cases (and thus that assumption should not be made), it is also true that ASSUMING natural explanations exist in every instance and relegating supernatural explanations to a different plane where they are not allowed to go toe-to-toe with naturalism is unfairly biased against the possibility that in some cases, the evidence is a better FIT with a conclusion that something supernatural must have been involved. Probably that should always be a tentative conclusion since discovery of a natural cause is never ruled out, but it should be within the realm of discussion, nonetheless.

4 04 2007
laelaps

Hello Sara, and thank you for commenting here. Indeed, I do often discuss creationism, but I think that you have mischaracterized my stance a bit; I do not dismiss it out of hand and say “There is no, nor can there ever be, evidence for creation” and say nothing more. Rather, if you read through my writing, I often discuss the creationist claims head on and why they are wrong. A good example of this can be found here, where I discuss how one creationist wrote that heat-producing radioactive rocks are really a symbol of God’s anger.

I also appreciate your comments on straw-men on both sides of the arguments. I differ in that there is some intelligent debate to be had, but I do grow weary of polemic attacks launched by both sides as well. Part of the reason I often get aggravated is that I feel many people are being lied to and science bastardized to fit in with an inconsistent idea, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting angry about that. That being said, I don’t consider creationists to be stupid, but I certainly can’t respect their stand on evolution when it reality it isn’t about science; it’s about upholding church doctrine and theology, and that’s why there will always be debate.

As for the meat of your comment, it did occur to me that creationists look at the world differently than I do, but then again the post wasn’t about them; it was about me. As I wrote in my introductory paragraph, creationists have often said that I’m a product of a secular education system, I’ve been brainwashed by “the world”, etc., when in reality the relatedness of life is something I perceived and interested me just by looking at life. In other words, I became interested and convinced of evolution long before I ever picked up a book on the subject.

You bring up the words responsibility, choice, understanding, and beauty as well. While there is much debate over evolutionary psychology at the moment, if I look at a sunset and deem it “beautiful” it doesn’t refute the evolution of life. I’m not saying you hold such a view, but merely stating that even in unpacking why people have different perceptions of what’s beautiful or moral, this doesn’t bring much to the table when it comes to how and why Sarcopterygian fish evolved into the first tetrapods or other important evolutionary lineages.

Often times creationism is deemed an “argument from ignorance” because in the realm of science (not in the more philosophical realm of “understanding” and “beauty”), religion has traditionally created mythologies to explain natural phenomena that at the time could not be figured out. Even the issue you brought up previously (the explanation of beauty, for example) could almost be put into this bin; if scientists can’t explain beauty, then it must be a sign for God. I discuss some of these issues in an earlier post, but to reiterate briefly, religion seems to always take issue when a natural explanation is discovered for phenomena previously assigned to be miracles, signs from the gods, signs of the gods wrath, etc., and so creationism seems to be more reactionary than anything positive (why is so much time spent trying to refute evolution than creating a rigorous study program dealing with positive evidence?).

As for including the supernatural into science, there first needs to be some indication that something supernatural exists or has influence. This even leads to contradictions, as if God exists and intervenes in the world, he then becomes a part of nature and open to study/falsification/study/etc. You may scoff at such a suggestion, but if we are to leave open the door for the supernatural (including astrology, alien abduction, psychic powers, and bogeymen) all those things should have some positive proof for them in the empirical realm. I am not advocating NOMA or keeping science and religion separate; they constantly and consistently step on each others toes, but supernatural explanations seem entirely based on belief, philosophy, theology, and opinion, not science. Like I said earlier, when I discuss creationism on here, I often do it in terms of a specific claim and then show how such a claim doesn’t make sense; should I really leave open the possibility that Tyrannosaurus rex lived in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and was a vegetarian until the Fall? If some sort of proof could be offered, I’d consider it, but there simply is not any; there is only the twisting and bastardizing of science to fit into a particular worldview.

As I mentioned in the post, it is important to not only know what someone says, but why they are saying it, and this goes for those who support evolution and those who support creationism. Evolutionists are not without fault, but there is not the same kind or degree of a priori allegiance to a particular religious doctrine based upon “The Bible is true because the Bible says the Bible is true” type of evidence. Scientists have been clamoring for the ID camp to come forward with ANY scientific data or study that supports their claims, and so far we’ve been disappointed; Behe, Wells, Dembski, and others have produced no new research to support their claims, and their popular works have been found to be full of error because of their allegiance to the “fall of materialism” as supported in the infamous “Wedge Document.”

Simply put, I do not reject supernatural explanations out of hand; that would be dogmatic. Rather, every time I am presented with one it is inconsistent with my experience and the experience of many scientists, both living and dead, and that’s why I dismiss it. If you could see my library you would see plenty of creationist literature along with books about evolution, and the first book I ever read on the subject was Icons of Evolution, and it’s very much because I have considered creationist arguments that I feel they are wrong. Astrology and alien visitation/abduction nonsense irritate me as well, but I have read plenty of books and seen plenty of documentaries on both of those topics as well, and I still see fit to dismiss them even after understanding their arguments.

I’ll close with this little anecdote that I feel sums up much of the creationist position (and why it is correct to dismiss it upon lack of evidence). I saw a creationist speaker last October, and later went out to dinner with him and a prominent creationist scientist. His lecture was fraught with errors (including calling Icthyosaurs fish and a big-fish story about a male mammoth rescuing his favorite mate from a mudslide), but in conversation he confided in me that he didn’t care so much about the science as in saving people. Creationists are not devoted to doing good science or finding out the truth; they are devoted to defending their own brand of religion by trying to snuff out anything deemed heretical, and many will lie or distort information just so long as someone else is going to church. Is that really working for the greater good?

4 04 2007
Chris Harrison

I don’t want to steal any of Brain’s thunder here, since I’m sure he’ll have many comments for you Sara, but let me add a few things.
When someone versed in evolutionary science says they “see” how obvious evolution is when looking at the living world, they do not claim their mere intuition is truly evidence of evolution. This is most definitely where creation and evolution part ways. The former hovers as some sort of vague hunch, while the latter goes on to become one of the most central and well supported theories in all of science. I will admit that some “evolutionists” often come off arrogant and very dismissive of creationism–I do it myself sometimes.
Unfortunately, mannerisms do not count in science, so after debunking the same arguments 450 times, I don’t have a problem with scientists using their wit to make fun of creationism. To be honest, I enjoy it sometimes. That’s why I read PZ Myers’ blog. He uses the hard science to show how utterly wrong anti-evolution rhetoric is, and he tosses in a good amount of insults and humor.
You might not like that, since you are as you say, undecided on this controversy. I’m sure you want a level discussion without name calling and taunting.
You can have one of those if you want, and I would happily discuss the issue with you if you wish. I won’t call you an idiot for not knowing about molecular homologies or redundant DNA, but then again, you didn’t come in with both barrels firing off things like “no evidence! evolution is faith!” etc. You seem to sincerely want a nonsense-free discussion. You can email me at chrisharrison@mail.utexas.edu , or you can continue to post your thoughts here.

5 04 2007
laelaps

Oh yes, lest I forget, thank you Chris and Martin for your comments and support; I’m glad you identified with what I wrote. A lot of time is spent on blogs arguing one way or another about a given issue, so it was nice to take a step back and explain why I care so much about this topic. Like I said in the post, I can’t really think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

5 04 2007
SaraMichelle

Thank you Brian and Chris for both of your thoughtful comments,

I will probably take you up on your offer Chris and truly appreciate the invitation (and please feel free to comment on what I say below). However, to save you time, I’ll try to read a lot of what Brian’s blog has to offer first so as not to ask too many redundant questions (although all my questions will probably be redundant with a million people before me). Rather than strew comments around as I read your various blog pages, I will try to explain here exactly where I’m coming from and my primary concerns. Most of my concerns come from more of a psychological or philosophical critique (if it can be called that) of evolutionary theory as the sole explanation for the origins of all life. If you do not respond, don’t worry. I won’t take your lack of response as the scientific community throwing its hands up at my brilliant questions. I know that you have a limited specialty and are still learning, but I just wanted to kind of share exactly where I’m coming from. Sorry for the length of this post. I won’t do it again, I promise.

Brian, I understand that your post was aimed at explaining your personal journey not at providing evidence for evolution. As a non-scientist, and a former philosophy major (now a law student at Stanford), I give intuitions a lot of credit, maybe too much. Of course, intuitions don’t help when it comes to general relativity or to the behavior of particles that seem to communicate to one another. And maybe they are of no value at all when there is hard evidence to be had through the sciences. But if intuitions are given credit, I believe that your young intuitions, although better supported by the science, are in the minority. The history and popularity of religion in its many forms is in part explained by the fact that the majority of people throughout history seem to have had an intuition that the existence of a universe, time, space, the basic chemical materials present in the universe, and then the variety of life forms, including human intelligence and emotion, intuitively points to the existence of an intelligent creator or creators rather than a non-intelligent process. I know there are plenty of other explanations for religion’s popularity and origin, but evolution has not been the obvious explanation to most people who in pre-modern times sought to explain the origins of everything.

You say “there first needs to be some indication that something supernatural exists or has influence.” What would such evidence look like? Now, for just a moment, pretend (really try) that there is an intelligent creator (not necessarily the god of any specific religion) and that this intelligent creator has allowed natural processes such as evolution to work upon the “creation” and leave their mark. But at the same time, this creator has not entirely distanced itself from the creation and has (1) played a role in creating the universe, space, time, and the basic materials (2) created life in general and allowed it to evolve (3) given humans a soul, presumed to be non-discoverable through scientific means since it is non-natural. Now let’s imagine that we really want to know the truth, whether it is scientific per se or not. What possible type of evidence could be put forth for the existence of this creator? (Assuming he/she does not provide another form of evidence other than the “creation” itself). This evidence would have to be something that looks very much like an argument from ignorance. Or an argument from intuition. It’s silly to say think that we would be able to “test” the existence of a god in a scientific way. Anything that cannot be explained by known natural causes would be an indicator of the existence of the god(s). Any property of a living thing that has no known benefit to reproduction and survival would indicate such existence. And any sort of prior existing facts, materials, or elements would perhaps indicate such existence if we think that natural things need origins. Point is: although the creationists are annoying to scientists, by poking at natural explanations such as evolution, they are resorting to the only type of “evidence” they possibly can have – evidence that something cannot be explained by known natural processes and laws.

Now, I’ll show my hand a bit. First, I do not put stock in the Bible. I think it was written by people like myself at different points in time for different reasons and later thrown together arbitrarily so, although some parts provide an interesting theological study and some parts provide an interesting historical study and other parts are poetry, there’s no point in relying on it as authority. On the other hand, I tend more than not to believe that there is some sort of intelligent creator who played a real role doing (1) (2) and/or (3) above. The intuitive reasons for believing in a creator-person that appeal to me (I came up with these myself although I’m sure many others have thought of them too) are: (A) The existence of the basic components of the universe, including dimensions, the most basic of basic materials and forces, and anything else that sort of pre-existed the big bang and evolution. You will probably agree with me that science does not rule this out yet. I think that science has shown us that natural phenomenon have causes and are predictable. It is therefore easier for me to believe that something “outside” of the laws of nature (supernatural) was the first cause, rather than that natural things just existed for no apparent reason (not to mention rather complex natural things, because for all that scientists are able to give names to the basic forces and chemicals, it is my understanding that scientists are not able to explain these forces and elements. (B) Certain aspects of human psychology (which will probably be explained by evolutionary psychologists if they are not already) seem at this point to me not to fit with an evolutionary model where everything should be aimed at survival. For example, the fact that I look at a jagged landscape or a sunset and I think “how beautiful” does not seem at all related to survival. But I know this isn’t your field, Brian, and evolutionary psychologists have been able to explain quite a lot already. (C) Intuitions. My intuitions tell me that I am capable of knowledge/understanding/truth-seeking. However, if I am a purely material being then every “though” or action I have is subject (in a complex way) to the laws governing material things. In fact, everything I will ever say or do was determined before I existed because in this closed universe where everything is material, everything is caused by something else and everything is determined. Thus, choice is an illusion. Guilt is an illusion. Love is an illusion. Most importantly, knowledge is an illusion. Even the most brilliant scientist is only a product of her environment and genetic makeup, and her every “discovery,” “thought” and “conclusion” was determined from the time the big bang went off. Because, as a philosopher, Brian, (and I know you’re not so interested in this, so sorry) I am 100% convinced that if there is no God, then you and I are just clusters of particles communicating to other clusters of particles and we have no better chance of what I consider “true knowledge or understanding” that two trees talking to each other have.

Now to really tilt my hand, I will admit that I would very much like for there to be a god. I’d like to think of myself as a genuine seeker of truth (and I probably am more than most people) but while I am prepared to believe anything well-supported, a universe with no God, no eternity, nothing but material that happens to be clustered together into people-shapes and animal-shapes and world-shapes, is depressing to me (to grossly understate). And I think scientists would do well to be more understanding that most creationists have a similar desperation to believe that this life has some meaning. (Although I too wish they would shut up with using the bible as authority).

Thanks again guys!

5 04 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the long and involved comment Sara, and I’ll be sure to write a detailed reply. Just to quickly respond, I myself have sometimes pondered the position of God as the “First Cause” or the deist conceptualization of God, but in doing so I think it’s important (through self-examination) to make sure this is a belief that there is positive evidence for and not A) vestiges of a more robust faith, whittled down as natural explanations replace supernatural, or B) a God of the Gaps type theology based upon comfort. I’m not saying that you’re engaging in either of those, but those are two common trappings that I think are relatively common.

I also would like it if there was a God, an afterlife, and that there was something inherently good about the universe, but more often than not I act like an agnostic because I keep finding a lack of evidence to support any such view. You mention the subjectivity of the human experience, and I agree with you; even the most brilliant scientist is only dealing with what they’ve experienced. This, however, does not mean that all knowledge is somehow meaningless or baseless. Arguments could be made that the world didn’t exist until right this second and everything we think we’ve experienced was some sort of pre-programming to deceive us, or that the world really is being carried around in a sack by an old man or riding on the back of the giant turtle. Such beliefs fall into the field of things you can’t prove or disprove because there’s no evidence, but just because someone can dream something up doesn’t mean it’s correct.

Also, I don’t know how you’re using the term but I do not agree in evolution because of “intuition”, the word as I know it being knowledge arrived at without reasoning, i.e. “a feeling.” What I attempted to convey in my initial post was that through observation, rumination, and rational thought processes, there was no reason for me to regard evolution as false; it always has been logically consistent in my own experience, regardless of my theological leanings one way or another.

You bring up the question of what sort of evidence would prove the supernatural, and that is indeed a tricky one. The most obvious example would be the revealing of God to large groups of people the world over and explain how it all was done. Is this likely to happen? I don’t think so. So what can we do? The problem is that many things were once considered supernatural, but as we came to understand them they became natural. Indeed, “supernatural” to me is almost like natural en potentia, or explanations based on intuition (see definition above) or feelings when there is no natural explanation. The point of it is that those who propose a designing intelligence have the responsibility to provide positive evidence for their line of thought, something that has yet come to pass.

Part of the problem with intelligent design is that the leading proponents believe that God is the designer, but they won’t say that because it smacks of creationism. In public it’s aliens, time travelling scientists, or flying purple people eaters, but when they’re out of the spotlight it’s the Judeo-Christian God, which (to me) says that they’ve merely coopted the age-old “argument from design” and defied their own religions by acting ashamed of their own God/designer. It is interesting that these people did not arrive at the idea of an intelligent designer by observing nature, but rather they have religious tradition on the one hand and science on the other, and try to make the one fit the other rather than coming up with some new, positive evidence.

Anyway, it’s dinnertime so I must be off, but thanks again and I will elaborate later.

5 04 2007
Chris Harrison

Hi Sara. Thanks for your response.
To start with, I think you were correct when you said that the concerns you have about evolution stem from what you perceive are its philosophical implications–rather than the science itself. These conversations are always tricky, because although two incredibly different people can come together and let the evidence sort out the science, sorting out philosophy is not just a matter of looking at the facts to reach the obvious conclusion. Personality, background history and religious disposition can all be disregarded on matters of science, but they form the basis of philosophy. That is why we can ask “What is your personal philosophy?” but not “What is your personal science?”. I’ve digressed, so let me stop prattling and address some of your comments.

You mentioned that the majority of people intuitively feel an intelligence is behind the cosmos, and that a material process like evolution is not easily “seen”. I agree with this, and I think historical evidence as well as research into child psychology points to this conclusion. Over the past 10,000 years, human culture has (re)created gods and spirits to explain/cause natural phenomenon–not the least of which is our very own existence. Child psychologists observe that young children intuitively see causation behind everything. Clouds are “for” rain etc. So I think you are correct that humans have an innate tendency toward teleology. I think you are too quick to invoke supernatural explanation here, as there have been a number of cognitive psychologists and cultural anthropologists who have tied these aspects of human nature (including religious predilection) to the evolution of our species. If you are interested more in this, there are a number of books I can refer you to that discuss this topic.

You ask what sort of evidence would be indicative of an intelligent designer, and although I am an agnostic/atheist, I will try to approach these from a neutral standpoint. Let’s see where your suggestions take us. You offer these possibilities:

“Anything that cannot be explained by known natural causes would be an indicator of the existence of the god(s).”

This is, as Brain pointed out, a god-of-the-gaps argument. In other words, wherever something exists that we cannot explain, God is sitting there smiling/twiddling his thumbs/playing chess with his roommate. To see why this is fallacious, we need only to observe history. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson expounds on this rather eloquently here: http://research.amnh.org/~tyson/PerimeterOfIgnorance.php . This is a double edged sword. One one side, those gaps keep shrinking as science advances, and this in turn shows God to be getting smaller and smaller. If science tells us anything, we get nowhere by labeling our ignorance “God”.

“Any property of a living thing that has no known benefit to reproduction and survival would indicate such existence.”

You do caricature evolutionary theory when you say everything needs to benefit survival, and I think you’d do well to read a bit more on the evolution of cooperation/altruism so you see that there are very good explanations for the behaviors you observe but don’t think jive with evolutionary theory. W.D. Hamilton’s kin selection and John Maynard Smith’s work with game theory, reciprocal altruism etc. are all attempted explanations for these phenomenons. They have very compelling support.

So of your first two evidences, I do not think they demonstrate anything related to the supernatural. If you’re not satisfied with my comments on those two, I think you should take one or two very specific examples and explain in more detail why they’re evidence of supernatural design.

“And any sort of prior existing facts, materials, or elements would perhaps indicate such existence if we think that natural things need origins.”

By these I assume you mean the universe itself/the cosmological constants etc. I find your qualification “if we think that natural things need origins” to be very telling. It seems that whether or not the existence of material objects suggests the divine depends entirely on if we *believe* material things must have an origin–per your own quotation. So this seems to come down to personal opinion. Did the universe need a supernatural being to jump start its expansion? Jim says yes but Mary says no. How do we possibly decide who’s right? We don’t have a way to differentiate whose opinion is valid, so the existence of the universe itself is neither a real argument for or against intelligent causation. It is just an opinion question that guides us nowhere.

You assert that if we are “just” material beings, then everything we know/feel/choose is just a predetermined illusion. I think your statement here is a non sequitur. Indeed, I could simply assert the direct opposite, and my assertion we be no more substantiated than yours. I have not read it, but you might look into Dan Dennett’s book “Freedom Evolves”, where he argues that our freedom and our free-will is compatible with being the products of evolution.

I’m sorry to hear that you find materialism to be depressing, but I hope you will suspend your distaste before writing it off. As I said, I do not believe in any sort of afterlife, but I do not find myself grieving or depressed because of this. Quite on the contrary, I think life becomes much more important and meaningful when you realize its transience. All the hopes, fears, loves and dreams a religious person has are not inaccessible to an atheist like myself. As to the topic of death specifically, I think it spells the end, ie, game over. I see no evidence for any Bonus levels or a reset button. This does not worry me either though, because, in the words of Mark Twain, “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.”

5 04 2007
Chris Harrison

Oops, I credited Smith with reciprocal altruism. That’s wrong–it was Robert Trivers.

30 05 2007
Laelaps

[…] and would be no different from going along with a consensus for its own sake. As I’ve written before, I am such a strong adherent to evolution because of my own experience; I have not been […]

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