Recently, a post by Peter Saunders mentioning twenty questions atheists struggle to answer has created discussion around the blogosphere. He has followed up with some further explanations of why he asked the questions he did (1-6, 7-11). I thought it would be interesting to see how various atheists have tried to answer the questions and to stake out my positions on such matters. Obviously such a blog post is not going to provide exhaustive thoughts on all these matters. The reader is encouraged to make up his own mind.
1. What caused the universe to exist?
Saunders himself seems to have the kalam cosmological argument in mind in posing this question. I think it is important to note that there are other cosmological arguments that can tell us something about the First Cause too. The mere existence of causation strongly suggests the existence of a First Cause. I find cosmological arguments particularly strong because, unlike many other arguments, the conclusion logically follows from the premises if the premises are true. When properly understood, most cosmological arguments are logically valid. This forces the atheist to deny one or more premises in the argument. There is no wiggle room for the atheist to say that the argument is sound but not persuasive to them (at least if they want to be taken seriously).
Rosa Rubicondior notes that scientists cannot examine the first 10^-43 seconds of the universe’s existence. This completely ignores the premises of the cosmological arguments altogether. Cosmological arguments are philosophical, not scientific, in nature.
Richard Carrier begins by suggesting it is possible that our universe began to exist but was caused by another universe. This merely moves the question back a level. He then suggests that the universe itself is just as good an explanation as God. If God just exists then maybe the universe just exists. If God is a necessary being then maybe the universe is a necessary being. This might sound plausible unless you understand cosmological arguments. The kalam cosmological argument provides philosophical reasons for rejecting an eternal past. Since the universe is temporal it could not be the First Cause posited by the kalam cosmological argument. Thomas Aquinas argues that the First Cause is Pure Actuality. The universe contains potentiality and therefore cannot be the First Cause determined by the Five Ways.
Ricky Carvel tries a similar tactic but merely exposes his ignorance of cosmological arguments. Like many atheists he has a hard time grasping the nature of a deductive argument (at least when it concerns God). A sound deductive argument proves its conclusion. The argument explains why God does not have a cause. The argument explains why the regress must stop at the First Cause (God). Asking vague questions does not undermine the argument. You need to attack the argument’s premises or logical validity.
2. What explains the fine tuning of the universe?
Saunders notes that the universe is fine tuned for the existence of life. There are three general explanations for this fact: (1) chance, (2) necessity, and (3) creation by God. The first option is widely improbable but technically possible. The second option leads one to ask what made the fine tuning necessary, thus moving the question back a level. I don’t think this is a strong argument in favor of theism, but I think it is reasonable to conclude that we would expect a universe fine tuned for life if it was created by a God who wanted to know His creatures. The atheist could admit this while believing other considerations make atheism more likely than theism on the whole.
Richard Carrier notes that the universe could have been made more habitable to life. This does not change my opinion that it is more probable for life to exist (at all) given theism than atheism.
3.Why is the universe rational?
By this question Saunders seems to be asking why the universe is intelligible. Why can we make sense of the universe at all? It is certainly conceivable that we could live in a world where we were in a constant state of bewilderment. As with the fine tuning argument, I think this is a weak argument in favor of theism. We would expect a universe to be intelligible if it was created by a rational and intelligible God.
Rosa Rubicondior says the human brain has evolved to be good at pattern matching. In other words, the universe is rational because we’ve rationalized it. But this doesn’t answer the question of why there are patterns to be matched in the first place.
4. How did DNA and amino acids arise?
5. Where did the genetic code come from?
6. How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?
Questions 4-6 all tie in with intelligent design in regards to biology. From my reading, a decent number of atheists will admit that various cosmological constants must be within a very small range for life to exist. This gives me more confidence, as a non-expert, that the fine tuning argument has decent footing. On the other hand, very few atheists seem willing to give serious consideration to intelligent design. While I would describe myself as a theistic evolutionist I am not aware of solid naturalistic answers to these questions (I do not consider just-so stories to be solid answers). I am at least open to the possibility that intelligent design may one day prove correct. At the same time, if a purely natural answer to these questions is forthcoming it would not effect my faith since God can work through secondary causes.
7. How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?
Saunders notes that some language families have no discernible connection to other language families (some language families are clearly related to another language family). According to him, this is to be expected if God sowed confusion at the Tower of Babel. I find this argument unpersuasive for three reasons. First, one does not need to interpret the Tower of Babel account in the way Saunders does. It is possible that Genesis 11:1 means that, while each nation had its own language, there was a lingua franca that allowed the nations to communicate with each other (see commentary). Second, it is possible that language arose independently in multiple locations. Third, it is possible that language arose once but we can no longer trace every language that was ever spoken.
8. Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?
Saunders argument here is that if modern humans (biologically speaking) have existed for 50,000 years it is hard to explain why it took so long for cities to appear. Perhaps, he says, humans have only been around for a few thousand years. I am not in a good position to evaluate whether man should have been able to build cities, say, 40,000 years ago instead of 5,000 years ago. But I am skeptical of this argument because there is evidence that modern humans (biologically speaking) have been around for more than 5,000 years. I know there are young earth creationist tactics to try to explain away this evidence but I don’t find them at all persuasive.
9. How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
10. How do we account for self-awareness?
11. How is free will possible in a material universe?
Question 9-11 are all related to the philosophy of mind. Technically, an atheist could accept the existence of an immaterial mind (soul) while rejecting the existence of God. However, these are reasons to doubt that the mind is nothing but the brain. In addition to the issue of consciousness (self-awareness) there is also the issue of qualia and intentionality. The materialist can bite the bullet and deny the existence of independent thought and free will. But it is absolute desperation to deny that the mind is conscious, experiences qualia, and exhibits inherent intentionality (though eliminative materialists try). If we can know anything it is certainly that we are conscious. I find arguments for dualism (of some kind or another) based on these facts to be persuasive while not locking myself in to a specific form of dualism (e.g., Cartesian dualism). This does not prove theism but it does make the existence of an immaterial mind, such as God, plausible while making materialism untenable.
Richard Carrier bungles this issue. First, he falsely claims that dualists can’t make predictions from their theories, but this is untrue (see Irreducible Mind or Soul Hypothesis). Second, most dualists believe there is interaction between the brain and mind, meaning pointing out correlations in the brain does not help us decide between materialism and dualism.
Dude Ex Machina suggests that a certain level of complexity will result in consciousness. But there is simply no reason why we should expect matter to be conscious. He brings up the topic of artificial intelligence and non-human brains. As someone with a BS in Computer Science I fully expect that no computer will ever become conscious (mimicking consciousness is a different matter) barring a revolution in how computing is implemented.
12. How do we account for conscience?
13. On what basis can we make moral judgements?
14. Why does suffering matter?
15. Why do human beings matter?
16. Why care about justice?
Questions 12-16 concern morality. The main problem I have had with all purely secular meta-ethical theories I have come across is that they provide no reason for the evil person to perform good deeds if he can avoid punishment from other people. On the other hand, an omniscient God that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked provides such an evil person a reason to perform good deeds. But this is beside the point since the atheist can grant that objective morality does not exist or that there is no reason for the evil person above to perform good deeds. This may be unpalatable to many of us but it does not make it false.
17. How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?
18. How do we know the supernatural does not exist?
19. How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?
Saunders has not elaborated (yet?) on what he had in mind with these three questions. If I were forced to turn these questions into arguments it would involve pointing out that millions of living people claim to have witnessed or experienced the supernatural (admittedly the distinction between natural and supernatural is vague but I’m talking about the kinds of things most atheists deny, such as miraculous healings, apparitions, the afterlife). One could then note specific instances of the apparently supernatural and how atheists struggle to adequately explain these cases. It has been my personal experience that atheists can struggle mightily in explaining specific cases and often need to resort to outright denial.
Rosa Rubicondior thinks we settle for easy answers. This might be true in some cases but there are other cases where a person looks for natural explanations and simply can’t find them. She also asserts that the supernatural cannot be detected or measured. While it may be true that supernatural entities cannot be experimented on in controlled situations there is no reason to believe they cannot be detected at all. Whether you believe them or not, people routinely claim to have detected the supernatural in some sense (e.g., they saw a ghost).
Richard Carrier seems to think that science will somehow extinguish belief in the supernatural (at least if we all followed it perfectly). But the fact is that scientists have come to believe in the supernatural after thorough investigations (e.g., the Rosenheim poltergeist, miraculous healings).
20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
I assume Sanders’ point is that the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead best explains these three historical facts (or at least the first two). Books on the subject from Michael Licona and N. T. Wright provide detailed arguments to this effect. I agree with Saunders on this matter. The atheist must rely on an anti-supernatural bias to overcome his lack of positive historical evidence.