The Flawed Logic of the Atheist
Dr. Stuart Kauffman, distinguished Origin of Life researcher, in a critique of the popular “RNA World” hypothesis for a naturalistic origin of life writes that, “the [problem] I find most insurmountable is the one most rarely talked about: all living things seem to have a minimal complexity below which it is impossible to go…Your curiosity should be aroused…all free-living cells have at least the minimum molecular diversity of pleuromona. Your antenna should quiver a bit here. Why is there this minimal complexity? Why can’t a system simpler than a pleuromona be alive?”
“Your antenna should quiver a bit here.” In layman’s terms: This should blow your mind! Pleuromona, the “simplest” type of bacteria, have a functional complexity on the level of a Saturn rocket and in order to survive and self-replicate, their DNA must – and does – contain encyclopedic amounts of digitally encoded information. The inert information in the DNA is not nearly enough. There also must be a highly sophisticated information retrieval and translation system.
However, even that is not enough. It is clear that one of the most serious challenges in copying large amounts of information is that errors creep in. With each generation of replication the errors increase exponentially resulting in what is called “error catastrophe.” In other words, errors quickly multiply to the point where the information is useless. Therefore, the bacterial cell must – and does – contain a highly sophisticated error correction system to ensure the integrity of the replication process. Where does the complex molecular machinery needed to retrieve and translate information and correct copying errors come from? How are the amazing molecular machines that perform these functions constructed? (It’s worth noting that we are talking about devices that are measured in the billionths of a meter) The answer is simple: The information required to build them (including the molecular machinery that performs the actual building process), is all contained in the coded sequences of nucleotides in the DNA. Your curiosity should be aroused. Much like information stored in a computer hard drive, the information in DNA is useless unless it can be retrieved and translated with copying integrity ensured. The machinery for retrieval, translation, and error correction cannot be produced without a previous error-free retrieval and translation of the information contained in the DNA. Your antenna should quiver a bit here.
While soberly contemplating this baffling conundrum one begins to understand another statement made by Dr. Kauffman (a self-proclaimed humanistic atheist), regarding the origin of life on Earth: “Anyone who tells you that he or she knows how life started on the Earth some 3.5 billion years ago is a fool or a knave. Nobody knows.” (Chapter 2, first paragraph)
The obvious solution to the Origin of Life, a creator with a “super-intellect,” as obliquely suggested by the late Sir Fred Hoyle, is vehemently rejected as even a possibility by atheistic scientists. Why? The purpose of this article is to explain the profoundly flawed logic used by non-believers in their rejection of the notion of a supernatural creator-of-life. I will deal here with the four main objections offered by atheist thinkers.
I. The Argument from Ignorance or “God of the Gaps”
The atheist claims that what I’ve presented is a flawed form of logic called an Argument from Ignorance: “Yes, Rabbi, it’s true that we have no idea how the enormous gap between non-life and life was crossed on this planet, but just because we don’t know, it does not mean that god or an intelligent creator did it.” To be fair, if I am searching for an explanation of Phenomena X and I come to the conclusion that either it was not Cause A or that I don’t know the cause; using that as my evidence to conclude that it must be Cause B, would, in truth, be an example of an Argument from Ignorance. The rejection of one possibility or not knowing the answer is certainly not evidence that it must be Cause B. Perhaps it is Cause C,D,E,F or G.
This objection is also labeled as the God of the Gaps argument: “Rabbi, just because Science has not yet discovered an explanation of how life could have come from non-life through an unguided naturalistic process does not mean that god or a creator did it. There is simply a gap in scientific knowledge and understanding and you have used that gap to jam a creator into the picture.” Hence, God of the Gaps. Both of these objections are baseless, as I will explain.
A major scientific project – the SETI Project – was recently downsized due to its lack of success. SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Scientists would scan the sky with radio-telescopes hoping to detect patterns of radio waves that would indicate an intelligent source. Imagine these SETI scientists detected the following Morse code radio transmission and could prove it came from a galaxy a million light years away: We inhabit a planet a million light years away from your Earth. We have been observing your civilization for centuries, from the time of what you call the Roman Empire. We have analyzed the chemical/molecular formula of your DNA and as a show of good faith we will transmit to you the chemical formula of a cure for cancer.” Would that not be undeniable evidence of an intelligent alien civilization?
Imagine further that the following exchange then takes place between two SETI scientists:
– “Hold on, stop the party! How do you know the source is an intelligent alien life form, maybe there is some naturalistic unguided process that is the source of these transmissions? “
– (Incredulously) “What unguided, naturalistic process do you know of that can produce intelligible Morse code messages?!”
– “Aha! The Argument from Ignorance! Just because you don’t know, does that mean there must be an intelligent creative force behind these messages? After all, did you meet these aliens? Do you know who, where, or what they are?
Is the conclusion that these transmissions originated from an intelligent source an Argument from Ignorance or is it simply as obvious as 2+2=4? The simple truth is that we are not ignorant of how specified information – like Morse code messages – arises. The only known source of such information is creative, conscious, and intelligent activity. This has been confirmed by all human experience. The reason we conclude that these messages came from intelligent aliens is not just because we don’t know of any naturalistic process that could produce such specified information. It is because we know exactly how these types of messages are formed. That knowledge is so clear in our minds that we don’t even consider any other possibility. It is axiomatic that we have the ability to recognize intelligent causation. If not, what was the point of spending millions of dollars on the project in the first place? Similarly, when we conclude that the functional complexity and specified information (contained in the DNA) of the simplest living organisms is the result of intelligent causation, it is not out of ignorance; but from the clear knowledge that there is no other known source for such phenomena. Again, this knowledge is so clear that – absent compelling evidence to the contrary – it precludes the consideration of any other possibility. The failure of science in its attempts to discover a plausible naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is exactly the result we would expect from such an investigation! (It is crucial to point out here that Darwinian Evolution – even conceding its truth for arguments sake – is irrelevant to our question. Darwinian Evolution cannot take place without a living, DNA-based self-replicating organism already in place. Darwinian Evolution and Natural Selection are only operative from that point forward. Evolutionary theory does not even pretend to explain how the first living, DNA-based organisms originated.)
To take it a step further: “Rabbi, you’re telling me that just because there is a gap in scientific knowledge and understanding and we haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic unguided process that could produce Morse code messages, you posit the existence of an intelligent alien civilization? Hah! That’s the old Aliens of the Gaps argument!” Could anything be more ridiculous? In fact what the atheist proposes is much worse than an Argument from Ignorance: “Let’s see, we haven’t a clue how the fantastic machinery of life could arise through an unguided naturalistic process…ergo, there cannot be a creator and I am justified in being an atheist.” Try making sense out of that.
Let’s be honest. If someone wanted to propose that these messages were the result of an unguided process – besides the fact that you would assume that this person had completely lost their mind – the burden of proof would be on him to prove such an assertion. If you want me to believe that the astounding levels of functional complexity and specified information that are found in the simplest living organism and its genetic code are the result of an unguided process, the extraordinarily heavy burden of proof is on you…and I wish you luck finding that proof.
II. Who Designed the Designer?
It is worth noting that the next objection the atheist raises is the centerpiece of Richard Dawkins’ rejection of Intelligent Design theory, along with that of Christopher Hitchens, Jason Rosenhouse and many other prominent atheistic scientists. Interestingly enough, it is an argument that has nothing at all to do with Science, it is a philosophical argument: “Yes Rabbi, everything you’re saying is correct, except that if you want to assert that the first bacterium must be designed you run into a serious problem; namely Who Designed the Designer?” In other words, if it is improbable that a living organism could arise without a designer, then it is even more improbable that the designer of this life could arise without a designer, and so on and so forth. We then end up with the absurdity of an infinite regress of designers (It’s designers all the way down!). For a number of different reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we have accepted the Big Bang theory that there was a beginning to time, space, matter, and energy, there simply cannot be an infinite regress of designers. Therefore, the atheist concludes that despite the improbability of a naturalistic origin of life, there is simply no choice and it must have happened at least once.
A full exposition of the flaws that make this objection logically untenable is beyond the scope of this article and I refer you to my 2/16/12 column entitled “Who Created the Creator? Who Designed the Designer?”
III. “Science Will Find an Answer” or what I call “The Argument from Non-Sequiturs”
This objection goes as follows: “Rabbi, over the past couple of centuries scientists have established one heck of a track record for themselves. They have uncovered many of the natural laws that guide the workings of the world around us, including amazing discoveries about how living organisms function. The accomplishments of scientists and modern science can only be described as dazzling. It makes perfect sense to assume that they will succeed in discovering the purely natural processes that led to the origin of life from non-life on this planet.”
I have seen this argument presented by many atheistic bloggers, including the ever-noxious P.Z. Myers on his popular blog-site, Pharyngula. It’s worth noting the rather different tone adopted by the aforementioned, Dr. Kauffman, in his book At Home in the Universe: “Indeed we may never recover the actual historical sequence of molecular events that led to the first self-reproducing, evolving molecular systems to flower forth more than 3 million millennia ago. But if the historical pathway should forever remain hidden, we can still develop bodies of theory and experiment to show how life might have realistically crystallized, rooted, then covered our globe. Yet the caveat: nobody knows.” [emphasis mine] I will proceed to explain, not only the fatally flawed premise of this objection, but why I describe this as an Argument from Non-Sequiturs. It will then become clear that the fallacy of the argument is implicit in Dr. Kauffman’s very description of the scientific quest to find a naturalistic origin of life.
The distinguished historian, Barbara Tuchman, wrote a best-selling historical work, The Guns of August, describing the events that led up to the outbreak of WW I. Let us assume that she is unquestionably an authoritative historical voice on that period of history. Imagine that Barbara Tuchman, in an address to the faculty of the history department of Harvard University, proposed that Kaiser Wilhelm made a secret trip to the United States in 1913 in an attempt to get American support for Germany if war broke out in Europe. The following exchange then ensued:
Harvard Historian: “Dr. Tuchman, that is quite a startling proposal. None of us have ever heard of such an event taking place. To the best of our knowledge, Kaiser Wilhelm never left Germany for the entire year before the outbreak of WW I. What evidence do you have for this claim?”
Tuchman: “I have no evidence at all that Kaiser Wilhelm actually made this trip, but I have a strong feeling that he did and since I am a world recognized authority on the history of WWI it stands to reason that I will eventually uncover evidence that confirms my feeling.”
Harvard Historian: “Dr. Tuchman, your qualifications as an historian are impeccable. No one is more qualified than yourself to investigate if such an event actually took place or the plausibility of such an event taking place, but the truth is that Kaiser Wilhelm either made the secret visit or he did not; if it did not actually happen, all the academic credentials in the world cannot make it true. To claim that such an event actually happened based solely on your previously established authority as an historian is nothing less than utter nonsense.“
How life began on this planet is in the category of an historical event. Dr. Kauffman, accurately uses the terms, “historical sequence” and “historical pathway” when describing the events that led to the flowering of life on Earth. Something happened some 3.7 billion years ago that resulted in living organisms swarming over our planet. Nobody was around to witness these events. It is up to us to examine the evidence and deduce what happened. The truth is that either life began as the result of a naturalistic unguided process or it did not. The truth is that life was the result of an intelligent act of creation or it was not. The truth is that a naturalistic origin of life is plausible or it is not.
Scientists like Dr. Kauffman are eminently qualified to investigate if life arose through a series of naturalistic unguided steps; they are eminently qualified to investigate if a naturalistic origin of life is plausible or not. However, all the scientific accomplishments in the world cannot make an historical event a reality if it never actually happened; all the PhD’s in the universe cannot make an historical event plausible, if in fact it is not. Because scientists were able to use all the genius and ingenuity at their disposal to discover a vaccine for polio or to unlock the power of the atom and create thermonuclear weapons does not give them the magical ability to create historical/scientific realities. It becomes obvious then, that to claim life arose through an unguided process with no evidence to support such a claim – other than one’s PhD in Chemistry – is utter nonsense.
Why then does Dr. Kauffman not distance himself from this folly by qualifying his statement with the addition of a single word: “We can still develop bodies of theory and experiment to investigate if life crystallized, rooted, and then covered our globe [through an unguided naturalistic process.]” There is only one possible reason. Dr. Kauffman and his atheistic colleagues, along with diplomats and attorneys, understand very clearly that whole universes can hang on the placement of a single comma, period, or word. With the addition of the word “if,” the game has been irrevocably transformed.
“If” means that reasonable truth-seeking individuals must consider the alternative: special creation. “If” means considering that when Dr. George Whitesides, of Harvard University, stated that based on all the chemistry he knows a naturalistic origin of life, “seems astonishingly improbable,” it is because it is astonishingly improbable. “If” means facing up to the distinct possibility that the failure of science to discover a plausible explanation for the origin of life is because there is no plausible scientific explanation for the origin of life. “If” means that teaching Intelligent Design theory about the origin of life in public schools is not medieval, fanatical, anti-science, or unconstitutional; it is simply teaching things the way they are. “If” means perhaps realizing that when Francis Crick wrote in Life Itself, “An honest man…could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle…” it is because, in fact, the origin of life is a miracle.
In short, the genius, creativity, and successes of scientists have as much relevance and bearing on the actual nature of the historical event we call origin of life as Barbara Tuchman’s historical expertise has on whether or not Kaiser Wilhelm actually made a secret visit to the United States prior to WW I; that is to say, there is no relevance at all. Hence, The Argument from Non-Sequiturs. We can now proceed to the fourth and final objection offered by atheists; the one that offers us the deepest insight into the true nature of atheistic thinking.
IV. The Argument from Infinite Possibilities or “Atheism of the GAP”
I accuse the atheist of using the most serious form of flawed logic of all. Let me begin my explanation of this flawed argument by quoting one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell. Russell made the following oft-quoted statement:
“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that since my assertion cannot be disproved [no one can doubt its truth], I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.”
Russell is absolutely correct. If I propose some fantastic notion and demand that it be accepted as truth, it is my burden to present the evidence that it is true. The fact that the particular notion cannot be disproved is irrelevant. Another way of stating that something cannot be disproved is to say, “Well, it’s possible” or “It’s not impossible.” The fact that it’s possible or not impossible is meaningless.
The notion that the awe-inspiring levels of functional complexity and specified information found in the simplest living bacterium is the result of some mysterious unguided, undirected process is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As of today not only is there no extraordinary evidence available, we find just what we would expect: no evidence at all that would compel me to accept this assertion as fact.
Atheistic scientists are acutely aware of the difficulties involved in proposing that some type of unguided process would be able to bridge the gaping chasm between non-life and life. However, they seem totally oblivious to the fact that – in keeping with the thrust of Russell’s argument – it is their burden to prove it true rather than being my burden to disprove the possibility.
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), headed by atheistic biologist, Dr. Eugenie Scott, has for years been in the forefront of the battle to prevent the teaching of flaws in evolutionary theory or Intelligent Design theory in US public schools. Dr. Frank Sonleitner, a Professor of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma has written a lengthy essay on the origin of life which appears on the NCSE website. He writes as follows:
“Modern ideas about the [emergence] of living things from non-living components…may not have yet come anywhere near answering all our questions about the process, but…none of this research has indicated that abiogenesis is impossible.“
Dr. Paul Davies, renowned authority on Origin of Life research:
“Just because scientists are uncertain how life began does not mean that life cannot have had a natural origin.” (i.e. it’s not impossible)
Even Francis Crick, undoubtedly one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century, is not immune:
“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going. But this should not be taken to imply that…it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions.” (In other words, it’s not impossible.)
Imagine winning 200 hands of black-jack in a row at a Las Vegas casino. As the pit-boss and his crew are summarily throwing you out of the casino onto the sidewalk, you offer the following brilliant pleading, “I know it seems like a miracle that I could win 200 hands in a row by pure luck, but it’s not impossible!“ (That’ll work real well, won’t it?)
Mark Isaac, from his book, The Counter-Creationism Handbook:
“Nobody denies that the origin of life is an extremely difficult problem, that is has not been solved though, does not mean that it is impossible.“
Isaak then takes this argument to its perfectly logical consequence. In his section on Origin of Life, after listing six of the unproven speculative theories about the origin of life, he lists as number 7, and I’m not kidding: “Something that no one has thought of yet.” Yes, “something that no one has thought of yet” is always a possibility. Imagine the following exchange:
– “2+2 does not equal four.”
– “Can you give me any reason at all to believe that?”
– “Of course I can: Something That No One Has Thought of Yet!”
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the District Attorney has presented eye-witness evidence against my client, fingerprint evidence against my client, and DNA evidence against my client. I would like to present you with a reason to find my client not guilty…Um, I got it! Something that no one has thought of yet!”
What about a prosecuting attorney who says the following: “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I know I have not presented any evidence that the defendant is guilty, but no one has yet proved that it is impossible for him to be guilty!”
I don’t know how to prove that it’s impossible for life to come from non-life, anymore than Richard Dawkins knows how to prove that it’s impossible for a china teapot to be revolving around the sun in an elliptical orbit between the Earth and Mars; but no rational person is going to believe either of those proposals without rock-solid evidence. And by the way, if we are accepting “it’s not impossible” as an argument, how about the following: “It’s not impossible that God created the world in six days and made it look like it’s 14 billion years old”?
When the atheist says “it’s possible that it happened” or “it’s not impossible that it happened” he is appealing to the notion of Infinite Possibilities. As we know from the courtroom, we don’t live in a world where we are required to consider infinite possibilities; we live in a world where we are only required to consider reasonable possibilities.
In the infinite space – or if you will – the infinite gap created by an infinite number of possibilities there is plenty of room for the atheist to believe that life can come from non-life through some mysterious unguided process. It is there, in that infinite gap, that he finds a comfortable place to pitch his tent and call it home. Hence, The Argument from Infinite Possibilities or most appropriately of all: Atheism of the GAP.
Those of us who choose to live in a reality that is guided by reasonable possibilities clearly understand where the truth lies.
Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. If you wish to be informed when new articles appear, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the email address and the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.