Monday, January 08, 2007

A few nuggets from yesterday's show

The Atheist Experience is back after a few weeks of involuntary hiatus! Yesterday we had an unusually contentious show with a lot of people calling in to argue vigorously. Near the end, Matt declared someone to be "The best caller EVER!!!" thanks to his uncanny ability to answer his own questions, as in these two bits of dialogue:

Scene 1:
Russell: "So let me get your story straight. Your mother was on the brink of death, and then she was fine. And that's proof that God exists."
Caller: "Yes."
Russell: "Okay, what do you call it when a person is perfectly healthy and then drops dead? Is that proof that God does not exist?"
Caller: "No, that's just proof that whatever happens to that person happens."
Matt: "Congratulations! You get the caller of the day award for being honest and answering your own question!"

Scene 2 (one minute and one change of subject later):
Caller: "Why is God not real?"
Russell: "Do you believe in unicorns?"
Caller: "No."
Russell and Matt: "Why?"
Caller: "Because... unicorns are fairy tales, and it hasn't been proven that there is one."
Matt: "You ARE the best caller EVER! You can answer your own questions every time!"

After the show, I answered some email exploring topics that we'd touched on that day, and I thought I should share it.

Your beliefs, or lack thereof, are based on what you perceive to be empirical evidence. Have you been shown empirical evidence that god (or gods or higher beings) do not exist? All you've got is proof that you are alive (to the best of your knowledge) and that life is going to cease as you know it, and have had to and must continue to pay taxes until the end of this heretofore called life.

Instinctually, fine. But give the devil its due...

BTW, I'm playing devil's advocate, insofar as I can.

In the absence of evidence, not believing that something exists is the default position. Near the end of the show, I asked a caller if he believes in unicorns. He replied "No, because unicorns are fairy tales and it has not been proven that there is one." Even though that caller did believe in God "on faith" (i.e., without any evidence), he did not feel the need to justify his lack of belief in unicorns any further. He didn't need to provide additional evidence that there are no unicorns. He just said, as we would, that there isn't evidence FOR them.

There is a philosophical principle known as Occam's Razor. It states that once you take all the available information into account, the simplest explanation is generally the preferred one. That doesn't mean that another explanation can't replace it if new facts become available. However, if somebody insisted on me believing that unicorns exist, but said I had to take it on faith that they do, non-belief is still the default. The position "Yes there are unicorns" and "No there are not unicorns" are not equally good.

Do you agree with that, or are you going to start believing in unicorns now?

This is the second letter:

Towards the end of the show, you said something to the effect of "God is uncaused, therefore it's not illogical to think the universe is uncaused." Forgive me if I'm misrepresenting, but I can see why some ID-proponents use this reasoning to assert both are an equal matter of faith. Hoping you can elaborate more.

The situation LOOKS symmetrical, until you take into account the fact that what is really in question is not the origin of God, but the existence of God in the first place.

The existence of the universe is not in question. It's right here. We're in it. Neither theists nor atheists dispute the fact that there is a universe. But the existence of God is not established.

Now theists say "There has to be a God, because God is a necessary condition for the universe to exist." Why? Because "Nothing can exist unless something caused it, and nothing causes itself." But then they go on to say, as the caller did, that "God is the alpha and the omega, he was uncaused and doesn't need a beginning."

The problem is that it flatly contradicts the premise of the argument. If NOTHING can be uncaused, then God (being something) can't be uncaused either. If something (such as God) CAN be uncaused, then that invalidates the reason why God supposedly "must" exist.

Was the universe uncaused? We have no idea, of course. But the universe definitely exists. So which is harder to swallow? That a universe (which definitely exists) is uncaused? Or that there is a previously undetected, unevidenced being who is greater and more powerful than the entire universe, with super-intelligence, who answers prayer and meddles in six billion lives, and THAT thing is uncaused?

There are other possibilities, of course. For example, the universe may be caused by something else uncaused, but it is in no way god-like, and has no intelligence. Or it's caused by something in a previous universe, which is caused by a previous universe, and so on, and there is no first cause. I'm not proposing that any of these possibilities is "right", but only that lacking an explanation does not force us to invent a super-intelligent hyperbeing unless we have any other good reasons to think that there is one.


  1. Before you posted your note to the AE list e-mail writer about Matt's closing statement (RE: the cause of the universe), I responded to him privately with a somewhat parallel response that I'd like to share. I felt it was a fairly concise summary--and since that's rare for me, I'm sort of proud of it! ;-)

    "Xians assert that all things that exist had to have been created; however, matter and energy are not created or destroyed--they only change form. While matter as we know it--in the form we know it--came to be from some other form, there is not any reason to consider that there was a time when no form of matter or energy existed. There is--as far as I know--no reason to assume or assert that such a time ever was. Even proponents of the Big Bang don't say there was an explosion from nothing.

    "However, this is usually not the point that is directly being made when a nonbeliever argues that if god had no cause, then it's just as fair to say the universe had no cause. This is less a statement of science than of logic. The Xian claims all things have to have cause. Then, when asked 'What caused your god?' They say 'God has no cause.' The logical question to them then is: Why did you say all things need a cause, when you just gave me an example of a thing--god--that you believe exists, and yet has no cause? If you believe some things do not require a cause, then you're premise--that the universe requires a cause because all things require a cause--is not supported by your argument that you believe in a thing that has no cause. Either all things require cause or not all things require cause. If all things do require cause--then your god requires cause. If not all things require cause, then there is no reason to assert the universe requires cause."

    For what it's worth.

  2. Hi, love the show. I'm a listener of the program and reader of the blog from Puerto Rico. They are both great.

    I could not believe what i was hearing on the podcast. The "best caller ever" exchange was hilarious and highly illuminating.

    How come the believers do not see their blatant contradictions even when they are so clearly shown?

    If a "Best of the Atheist Experience" show were to be made, that exchange would be in my top 3...

    @ Tracie:
    Thanks for the info. Never thought of using the law of conservation of matter and energy in that way.

  3. The Xian doctrine of "matter from nothing" is called "creation ex nihilo". It was not always accepted as the correct interpretation of Genesis. And, in fact, many early Xians--such as Clement and Origen--believed in "emination"--that the universe was a physical manifestation of god--not matter (separate stuff from god) from nothing. They understood the "problem" that "something" doesn't come from "nothing" and tried to address that--unlike modern Xians.

    Also, many regional creation myths in the area the Hebrews roamed, have similar stories that are clearly meant to imply that there was a primordial "something" and a god or gods came along and shaped it into all the familiar stuff we know and love.

    I believe it is an undeniable misinterpretation of the writing to say it intends to say that matter came from nothing. I believe it is clear that the story is just one of many "god came along and shaped all this stuff from the primordial soup" stories of creation that arose out of the Middle East and Persia. I think the more a person looks into the matter, the harder this is to deny.

    There are many pretty clear cues in Genesis itself, where it says that things were "formless"--"nothing" is generally not referred to as "formless"; formless is more of an attribute of a thing with a hard-to-discern shape. And the word that is translated as "created" in Genesis, also means "fashioned." Note, too, that god doesn't say "let there be man, and there was man"--he forms him out of clay. In the early god stories, the gods "formed" things--they didn't go around creating matter from nothing.

    Xians today put themselves at odds with conservation of matter by insisting their current interpretation of Genesis is correct--that matter came from nothing. But this is an interpretation that evolved over time and is not supported as the original idea of the story in any way I'm aware of. And was not even an original, comprehensively accepted Xian interpretation.

  4. I just finished listening to the was hilarious! I couldn't help laughing out loud to the best caller ever. He just didn't know what to do with himself when he answered his own questions :)

    Anyway, I have to say that I feel for you guys answering these same questions every week (and often in the same episode). This week really reminded me of conversations my husband and I have had with my in-laws. The callers really wanted to get their point across to you, but didn't want to listen to your point. That seems to be the way it goes most of the time.

    Thanks for the laugh best caller ever and thank you guys for a great show.


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