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Monday, September 15, 2008

Matthew versus Peter - Believer versus Skeptic

In the North York region of Toronto, Canada we generally get two types of Christians who go door knocking: Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. I rather enjoy when someone comes to my door and wants to debate religion with me.

I've debated Matthew, a Jehovah's Witness (JW), on two occasions over the past year. I'd guess he's in his early twenties and has come by with a different female JW on both occasions. They canvas the neighborhood in a few teams of two.

Matthew was very pleasant to talk to and had an optimism about his religion that I could not shake. I got the impression from Matthew that he was genuinely curious that Rajvee and I do not believe in god and that we were so confident and ready with answers to defend our convictions.

Matthew pointed out that god's name is Jehovah and that through studying the bible he's come to believe in god and the bible. I explained to Matthew that I did not believe in god and that there is no evidence for god and that science provides a more plausible explanation of the origin of life. I let him know that I studied computer science and physics in university and I've done a lot of reading on evolution. Matthew asked how I explain life if I do not believe in god. I gave a brief explanation that science believes the universe started with a big bang which there is evidence for and that created the particles that eventually formed into atoms. I explained that after a few million years stars and galaxies formed and all the chemical elements (atoms) that are in the periodic table are the pieces that form all matter. Then I explained that 4 billion years ago the Earth formed around our Sun and after millions of years of atoms interacting to form molecules and molecules interacting to form complex molecules, that a molecule that could replicate was formed and that all life shares it's ancestry with a cell that formed 100 million years after the formation of Earth. I explained that evolution over almost 4 billion years has produced animals as refined as human beings.

Matthew then asked me how science can explain something as complex as the brain. I responded that we do not know everything about the brain but that brain research is an active field of study. I explained that we do know it's made up of trillions of neuron cells which act as a decentralized computer processor which produces a stream of thoughts and we experience 5 thoughts per second and the process of evolution has produced our brain which is the best in the animal kingdom. I said other animals have brains of varying degrees of complexity and that is evidence that our brain is decedent from a simpler brain, the brain of an ape.

Matthew had a curiosity about science but from the questions he was asking he clearly did not give scientists an authority above his religious teachings. He felt that humans were different from animals because of art and language. He believes human life began 6,000 years ago with Adam and Eve, although he believes that the Earth was around geologically as long as scientists claim but without human beings. I asked who Adam and Eve's children married to further the human species. Matthew informed me that it was a case of incest. I had never previously got a clear answer from anyone about that and have read different Christian interpretations at Skeptics Annotated Bible.

Matthew did not even bring up Jesus (I was surprised) his arguments focused mainly on the concept of God and he was prepared to defend the whole bible. None of my knowledge of the 4 canonical new testament gospels was of any use. If ever there was a question he could not answer he said he would research the answer.

On the second visit from Matthew we again debated (for a shorter time) and Matthew brought a text with him titled "Life How Did It Get Here? By evolution or by creation?" on the "binded" side of the book it says "Creation". It was published in 1985 and is clearly out of date, but it is an art work of propaganda. I may create a separate post to elaborate on the critical notes I've made throughout the pages of that book.

I did share a nugget of wisdom with Matthew from Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene (2nd Chapter, first paragraph):

In the beginning was simplicity. It is difficult enough explaining how even a simple universe began. I take it as agreed that it would be even harder to explain the sudden springing up, fully armed, of complex order-- life, or a being capable of creating life. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people. Darwin provides a solution, the only feasible one so far suggested, to the deep problem of our existence.

By Pete


Pam Tolliver said...

Hi Pete. You don't look like a monkey to me.

Pam Tolliver said...

I usually have to type my comment all over again, but this time I don't! Well, anyway, I appreciate your fair treatment of the JW brother, and the respect you showed for his position. I can't get over how Dawkins and others jump from utter simplicity over to extreme complexity--without any explanation of how it happened--and just say that the Theory of Evolution explains it. But it doesn't. I love Michael Behe's book, "Darwin's Black Box." If you've read it, I'd be interested in your comments on it & particularly his discussion of irreducible complexity.

Tropical Pete said...

Hi Pam... I look more like a monkey than a fish... and my DNA is more similar to a monkey's than to a fishes. We are so similar to monkey's I feel it should be a compliment to be compared to one and not an insult.

Evolution does explain how simplicity turns in to complexity. Dawkins does explain a lot about the workings of evolution in his book Selfish Gene.

I would explain it that you can think of simplicity becoming complexity in two different paradigms.

1) Atoms forming into molecules which is re-produced every day in the lab. And famously when amino acids (some of the pre-cursors to life) were formed in a lab from a mixture of chemicals.

These molecules after millions of years of bumping into each other formed various different types of molecules. Some of these molecules broken down other molecules or bonded with other molecules when they interacted. Now imagine that process going on for 100 million years and the result being a single cell organism (bacteria).

2) Single celled organisms evolving through random genetic mutations (and from other changes in DNA from viruses and insertion of DNA from other bacteria) and the pressure to survive the conditions of the environment gradually over 3 billion years caused more and more complex organisms to evolve and the result being the plant and animal kingdoms.

I have not read Michael Behe's book but I am aware of who he is and his arguments. Irreducible complexity is a challenge to Evolution that Darwin proposed in his book. Darwin proposed many challenges and responded to them in order to prepare for criticism.

Michael Behe is the one of the only believers in Intelligent Design who attempts to formulate his theories in a way that can challenge science. His three examples of irreducible complexity: (1) the bacterial flagellum; (2) the blood-clotting cascade; and (3) the immune system. Have been debunked as not actually being irreducible. The bacterial flagellum in a simpler form can be used as an injector. A working blood-clotting system with a few parts missing (eg it was reduced in complexity) was found in a pufferfish in 2003.

Behe's irreducible complexity argument is not actually an argument for intelligent design it is an argument against evolution. If Behe were ever successful in showing a case of irreducible complexity he would then be in a situation to account for his observed results and all the existing observed results of evolution and come up with a coherent theory. Behe has not proposed any such theory.

Also, he is a member of the intelligent design discovery institute so his scientific motivations are questionable and need to be taken with extreme skepticism.

I found it interesting that on the Discover Institute website they admit:

"Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural."

Meaning they are not even attempting to distinguish between theism (monotheism or polytheism) and aliens (intelligent extra terrestrial biological or technological life forms).

It does not seem like ID is actually a theory because they do not provide anything other than a definition. They do not provide for the mechanics of how this intelligent designer performed the design.

Pam Tolliver said...

I would say, too, that proponents of Evolution have not provided steps to show how molecules bumped into one another in such ways as to produce the plant and animal kingdoms. How did the eye form, for example, step by step? Each step explained on the molecular level. No one has done it.

Tropical Pete said...

Hi Pam,

Based on your comments I wanted to clarify that there were singled celled organisms (bacteria) for about 3 billion years before the plant and animal kingdoms evolved from bacteria. So that is past the point of molecules bumping into each other and fully onto the process of evolution where random genetic mutations are selected for against the environment.

The evolution of the eye has been well documented, as evidence is the vast array of different eyes that each species has.

Skin cells that were sensitive to light is the first step.

They have found jellyfish who have eyes but no brain. They also believe the eye may have evolved independently in several different species.

You should definitely do some Googling and check out wikipedia for details.

Pam Tolliver said...

Hi Tropical Pete.....

This is my standpoint. You say the evolution of the eye is well documented, but I do not believe it has. The vast array of different eyes proves nothing. It only shows to me that our Creator has provided a very diverse panoply of creatures for humans to enjoy. I am trying to say that no one has provided the STEPS by which sensitive skin cells moved on to form an eye. Even you yourself use the word "may"--"the eye MAY have evolved independently," etc. I want to see the steps of the evolving eye and just how the cells rearranged themselves, step by step by step. If no one can do this, then Evolution cannot be claimed to be a fact.

Rajvee said...

Stages of eye evolution:

It makes sense to me.

EthanCaineDotCom said...

Richard Dawkins rules. Everyone, I mean EVERYONE should read The God Delusion.

Praise Black Jesus...aka Will Smith

Rajvee said...

I've read it... God Delusion is a brilliant masterpiece!

Pam Tolliver said...

You read "Darwin's Black Box" Ravjee, and you weren't impressed? I thought it was just terrific. Now, "The God Delusion" was written by Richard Dawkins, right? I loved his debate with another prominent scientist, in Time Magazine, Francis Collins. Undoubtedly you've heard of him. Dawkins actually conceded that God could possibly exist. The words exchanged were:

COLLINS: "Certainly science should continue to see whether we can find evidence for multiverses that might explain why our own universe seems to be so finely tuned. But I do object to the assumption that anything that might be outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation. That's an impoversihed view of the kinds of questions we humans ask, such as 'Why am I here?', 'What happens after we die?', 'Is there a God?' If you refuse to acknowledge their appropriateness, you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world because it doesn't convince you on a proof basis. But if your mind is open about whether God might exist, you can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion."

DAWKINS: "To me, the right approach is to say we are profoundly ignorant of these matters. We need to work on them. But to suddenly say the answer is God--it's that that seems to me to close off the discussion."

TIME: "Could the answer be God?"

DAWKINS: "There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding."

COLLINS: "That's God."

DAWKINS: "Yes...."

So he would go that far. Of course he had more to say, but my point is that he actually did concede that God could be the answer. After reading this discussion, I don't need to read his book.

Pam Tolliver said...

The email getting to me is a bit confusing as to what was said when. So Ravjee read "The God Delusion" and not the Black Box. Please read that book by Behe and let me know what you think about irreducible complexity. The stages of the eye that were mentioned on these posts that you, Ravjee find to make sense, are actually big jumps. No one has described the complicated changes on the molecular level that would cause one step closer, and then another and another, and a million others, to a complete human eye from a light-sensitive spot. If Dawkins has done it, quote him for me please. I've got the paper to print it out, however many reams it takes.

Rajvee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tropical Pete said...


It seems that you are not only suggesting Evolution is untrue but that God created the eye.

Why does the eye fail so often and people need corrective eyeglasses if the eye was designed?

Neil said...

While I am a fellow skeptic, and have no problem calling myself an atheist, there were a few things in this post that bothered me.

First, I'm always a bit bothered by atheist's tendancies to use science as a stand-in for religion, and hence equate the two, ("Science believes..." and other similar phrases). I always find this weakens the position quite a lot.

Science doesn't believe anything. It theorizes, predicts, tests, and comes to conclusions based on evidence. Nothing has to be taken on can review the research, and if you disagree with the conclusions, reproduce the experiment. Quoting Dawkins, by chapter and paragraph, much the same way many believers quote the Bible doesn't really help either.

And sometimes, I just think this is a fundamentally incompatible worldview with someone who's quite happy to just believe something because it's written in a book. So debating the true believers is pretty pointless in the end.

Neil said...

Dawkins actually conceded that God could possibly exist.'re clearly unwilling to recognize what this means. Most atheists, much like most scientists, are unwilling to rule out any possibility, since it is simply not possible to prove beyond any doubt that god does not exist. Dawkins is both an Atheist and a scientist, so suffers a double dose of this tendancy, and if you'd read his work (which you clearly haven't) you'd be aware that it's not a possibility he rules out.

But looking at the evidence, we ask...what is the evidence for the existence of god. And there is none. You can say "Well, life is pretty complex," but that's not evidence, since alternate explanations exist. Irreducible complexity is a problem to evolutionary theory, but whenever we delve into the specifics of how something complex evolved, we find steps along the way that demonstrate an evolutionary path. Propagandists like Behe simply pretend this research hasn't been done, and thus act like scientists believe that complex biological elements appeared out of nowhere.

Lastly, evolution has been reproduced in a lab. It's not just an unproven has been tested and proven.

Kamil (VeganPhilosopher) said...

As Neil correctly pointed out, Dawkins is not claiming the non-existence of a god. Dawkins argues against the existence of a personal, perfect God, who cares about the universe. Such concept is easily refuted by the Problem of Evil. All the apologies that have followed are insufficient, and are simply a product of the apologist's agenda. Since the idea of a caring God is effectively destroyed, the existence of a god is practically meaningless!

In addition, an intelligent believer (I am certainly excluding the 6000-year folks here who choose to ignore evidence, and frankly, are not worth debating) would not deny the Big Bang. Instead, the intelligent believer perceives the Big Bang as an event planned and executed by God. As Bertrand Russell pointed out: God, therefore, becomes an unnecessary hypothesis. Since both, the atheist and the believer cannot explain the Big Bang, why does the believer propose an additional hypothesis which he cannot explain (God has no beginning is NOT an acceptable explanation)? Why just not stop at the Big Bang?


Pam Tolliver said...

Thank you, Kamil, for your post. I had not realized that about Mr. Dawkins' viewpoint.

I had always thought that the Big Bang was something God caused. We can stop there if you wish.

Unknown said...

On: "Life How Did It Get Here? By evolution or by creation?"

Does it matter whether a god, gods, devas, fairies created, made up, imagined, dreamed this world up? There is suffering in this world and nobody likes to suffer. Wise people don't debate on reasons, theories, knowledge etc. We act to alleviate suffering. Knowing who or what (if anything at all) created you will not alleviate your suffering or that of others. When you're punched in the face and your nose is bleeding you try stopping the bleeding. You don't try to figure out existential questions. No more posts for me today. After sharing i must reflect. Peace outy

Tropical Pete said...


I think it matters if people believe the origins of this world are other than they appear to be.

The Buddha taught that Ignorance causes Suffering.

Catholics believe in a Creator and that they should follow the laws of that Creator. This causes suffering in Africa where the Catholic Church teaches that it is wrong to wear condoms (one of the Creators laws). The local priests spread the lie that AIDS is in the condom.