Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Case for a Creator: Chapter Two

Remember yesterday, when I said that it seems that Strobel seems very concerned with telling us about himself, and how very very atheist he was? Chapter Two begins thusly:
Rewind history to 1966. The big hit on the radio was Paul McCartney crooning "Michelle." On a television show called I Spy, Bill Cosby was becoming the first African-American to share the lead in a dramatic series. Bread was nineteen cents a loaf; a new Ford Fairlane cost $1,600.
As a fourteen-year-old freshman at Prospect High School in northwest suburban Chicago, I was sitting in a third-floor science classroom overlooking the asphalt parking lot, second row from the window, third seat from the front, when I first heard the liberating information that propelled me toward a life of atheism.
[page 17]
I check the cover to make sure the subtitle is, in fact, "A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God," and not "The Pointlessly Detailed Life of Lee Strobel." Maybe they teach you to pad your word count with "colorful details" in the papers, Lee, but I was told that this was going to be an investigation of scientific evidence that points toward God. It would be great if you could get on with that.

It's clear throughout this chapter that Strobel really wants to hammer home just how he was "toooooootally atheist, guys! Like seriously!" Like Durin pointed out yesterday, I can't shake the feeling that this is setting up an implicit Argument from Authority. I mean, if someone THAT atheist could be convinced, this MUST be good evidence.

It in fact has the opposite effect -- I begin to wonder if Strobel was actually ever an atheist at all. The atheism Strobel describes is a standard Christian caricature of atheism, as evidenced below:
I reveled in my newly achieved freedom from God's moral strictures. For me, living without God meant living one hundred percent for myself. Freed from someday being held accountable for my actions, I felt unleashed to pursue personal happiness and pleasure at all costs. [page 25]
It is this statement in particular that leads me to think that Strobel was never actually an atheist; rather, he is attempting to convince me that he was an atheist so that, as I said above, I will be compelled by his radical conversion. Having never been an atheist, he instead describes how he thinks atheists think, which will convince those who already believe (also having likely not been atheists themselves), but actual non-believers will have to conclude that if he ever was an atheist, he was a grotesquely stupid one.

The subject of morality without God deserves a post of its own (and even that is probably selling the subject short; books have been written), so I won't sidetrack this one with the subject. Suffice it to say that no atheist I know actually sees it as an "excuse" to misbehave -- the fact that so many of the religious seem to think that the only thing keeping them from raping and/or murdering every man, woman, child and pet they come across is the threat of God's punishment only belies the fact that they are not good or moral people at all.1 The moral person does good because it is good; the man who does good because he's afraid of what will happen to him if he does bad is not moral, he is merely a coward.

Buuuut, that's getting off the subject a bit. My point is that Strobel's attempts to convince me that he was an atheist have in fact convinced me of the polar opposite, and I will have trouble putting aside the fact that I believe he is being dishonest with me. Fascinatingly, he even describes himself as being "smugly arrogant" -- exactly the two words I used yesterday to describe the atheist characterization he was laying on so thick.

Ultimately, however, it doesn't necessarily matter if Strobel was or wasn't an atheist (which makes it yet more annoying that he spends so much time on the subject). The more important question is, does the scientific evidence he presents indeed point toward a Creator? Well, I'd like to tell you, but at this point he still hasn't presented any.

Actually, I take that back. In this chapter, Strobel presents the evidence that led to his apparent atheism when he learned it in his science class. This chapter is called "The Images of Evolution," and he refers to several iconic concepts (or "images") that, to him, represent(ed) the undeniable fact of evolution:

Image 1: The Miller-Urey Experiment -- in which scientist Stanley Miller reproduced, under laboratory conditions, an approximation of the atmosphere of the early Earth, and via application of electricity was able to spontaneously produce amino acids, the building blocks of life.

It should be noted, before moving on, that the Miller experiment is one testing the abiogenesis hypothesis -- the notion of life arising from non-life on the early Earth. Abiogenesis is a separate theory from evolution; evolution does not concern itself with how life started, only with explaining the diversity of life that arose after the moment that life began.

Image 2: Darwin's "Tree of Life" -- referring to an illustration in On The Origin of Species, showing life's theoretical common ancestor as the bottom of the tree, and all the diversity of life growing and diverging and blossoming upwards from there.

It's here that Strobel again tips his hand to, if not intentionally misrepresenting evolution, at the very least misunderstanding it:
It seemed obvious to me that there's such a phenomenon as microevolution, or variation within different kinds of animals. I could see this illustrated in my own neighborhood, where we had dozens of different varieties of dogs. But I was captivated by the more ambitious claim of macroevolution -- that natural selection acting on random variation can explain how primitive cells morphed over long periods of time into every species of creatures, including human beings. [page 20]
See, the creationist folk realized some time ago that they could not deny that evolution does occur. It is, as he points out, an observable fact. So instead they have inserted an arbitrary designation between microevolution and macroevolution -- two terms that, in a scientific context, do not exist. There is only evolution.

All evolution is small changes within a population of organisms.2 As he says, over time the sum of those small changes can result in organisms so totally different that they are scientifically classified as different species.

As an analogy, imagine that you are five feet tall at the age of fifteen. Every day for a year you measure your height, and on a day to day basis you will see little difference between one day and the day immediately before or after. Yet at the end of that year you find you are six feet tall. Even though the changes were small, at the end it resulted in the need to recategorize you (from "five foot tall person" to "six foot tall person").

Evolution is this concept writ large, with billions of organisms over billions of years. The notion of a separation between "micro" and "macro" is a semantical dodge, designed to allow creationist (or intelligent design) proponents to admit to what they can no longer deny, while continuing to deny what they don't wish to admit.

Image 3: Ernst Haeckl's Drawings of Embryos -- up to a certain point, the embryos of vastly different organisms can look almost totally indistinguishable. This is taken as demonstrating how similar we all are genetically, and by extension the likelihood that we share common genetics, since that would logically result in common development up to the point where our genetics diverge.

Fast-forwarding back to 2008 (we're in 1966, remember), it's worth noting that we now have pictures of these various embryos and their striking similarities, not just taking an artist's word for it.

Image #4: The Missing Link -- referring to archaeopetryx, the famous transitional form between reptile and bird.

Strobel spends the rest of the chapter establishing his argument, which is that you've got to take a stand and choose between evolution or God. He acknowledges that there are some who believe that evolution and God are compatible, but he immediately determines that because evolution leaves no need for God, it leaves no room for one.

And not just any God, mind you, but the Christian God specifically:
Certainly Christians would say that God is not a hidden and uninvolved deity who thoroughly conceals his activity, but rather that he has intervened in the world so much that the Bible says his qualities "have been clearly seen...from what has been made." [page 22]
But what would Muslims say, Mr. Strobel, and what does the Quran say about God's qualities? The Hindus and the Vedas? You haven't even proven that there is a God at all, let's not jump to conclusions about which God it is.

Of course, he isn't concerned with those other possible Gods, because Mr. Strobel has already determined for himself that the Christian God exists, and is seeking only to find and deliver validation for that belief.

If Strobel's intentions are becoming more plain, his methods are becoming more dubious:
I was experiencing on a personal level what philosopher Daniel Dennett has observed: Darwinism is a "universal acid" that "eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview." [page 24]
Note, again, the selective quotation. Strobel puts the word "Darwinism" into Dennett's mouth to ingrain it further. More alarming, though, is the citation found if you follow this quote to the endnotes, which gives this source:
Quoted in: Phillip E. Johnson, "The Intelligent Design Movement: Challenging the Modernist Monopoly on Science," in: William A Dembski and James M. Kushiner, editors, Signs of Intelligence, 34. [page 308]
If the significance of that citation isn't immediately apparent, let me explain. Strobel has not quoted Dennett in his argument -- he has quoted ANOTHER person quoting Dennett, that other person being an Intelligent Design proponent, making the quote in a pro-ID essay.

Why cite the quote secondhand? If Johnson did not include a citation of his own so that it could be traced back to the source -- and context -- of Dennett's remark, then the use of the quotation in both Johnson and Strobel's works is highly suspect. If Johnson DID include a citation, and Strobel chose to cite from Johnson's essay instead of researching the quote directly himself -- and, in so doing, making it more difficult for a reader of his own work to trackback the quote -- then the use of the quote is, again, suspect.

Granted, Signs of Intelligence is readily available on Amazon, but why quote a quote instead of going directly to the source? As a journalist Strobel should know better, which leads me to believe he intentionally evaded properly citing Dennett's remark -- which may in fact have had nothing to do with "Darwinism" at all.

It's not that the quote even really affects the argument being made -- it is, at least as reported here, a statement in support of the non-ID view of things -- but it certainly does not instill confidence in Strobel's journalistic integrity, nor his devotion to "not only...ask questions...but to go wherever the answers would take me." [page 29]

None of this necessarily negates his argument -- good evidence is good evidence no matter the source -- but it certainly makes it clear that Strobel is not playing a fair game.

Nowhere does this become clearer than in the home stretch of the chapter, in which Strobel says:
My approach would be to cross-examine authorities in various scientific disciplines about the most current findings in their fields. In selecting these experts, I sought doctorate-level professors who have unquestioned expertise, are able to communicate in accessible language, and who refuse to limit themselves only to the politically correct world of naturalism or materialism. [page 28]
Emphasis mine. The problem with this approach is that, despite Strobel's attempt to couch it as "politically correct," or previous attempts he's made within to characterize "naturalism" as only a particular "sect" of scientific study, the fact is that science by its very nature concerns itself with the natural, material, measurable world. Once you introduce supernatural hypotheses, science goes out the window because they cannot be tested and are therefore not scientific.

In choosing his "experts," Strobel has in fact chosen specifically only those who are already sympathetic to his beliefs. A truly neutral, journalistic approach would be to talk to people on both sides of the issue and let the facts speak for themselves. Strobel instead reveals his bias by limiting his conversation to those he knows will agree with his pre-ordained conclusion, silencing the opposition by simply not speaking to them.

Astonishingly, he follows that declaration with this one:
After all, it wouldn't make sense to rule out any hypothesis at the outset. I wanted the freedom to pursue all possibilities. [ibid]
So. He didn't want to rule out any hypothesis -- except the natural or material ones -- and wanted to pursue all possibilities -- except the natural or material ones.





Strobel cautions the reader that "getting beyond our prejudices can be difficult. At least, it was for me...I didn't want there to be a God who would hold me responsible for my immoral lifestyle." [page 29]

Again with that. I can't speak for other atheists, but I don't lead an immoral lifestyle -- even by Christian standards. I don't lie to people, I don't cheat people, I am not sexually promiscuous, I don't get shitfaced-drunk or hurt people or do any other "immoral" things, certainly no more than your average Christian and I would bet, pound for pound, less so than most of them.

Strobel wants to assert that I'm afraid to admit God exists; I'm not. I live a good life, I am a decent person, and I'm confident that any God worth worshipping would take that into account when the time comes. If God exists and he/she/it is truly righteous, then I'll shrug, say "my bad, good to meet you," we'll have a laugh and move on with eternity. And if God exists and is not righteous, then fuck him/her/it anyway.

Either way I'm unafraid of the notion that God might be real. But if I'm going to believe, I'm going to need evidence -- and despite the book's subtitle, Strobel still hasn't given any. Instead he's written two "chapters," really glorified forewords or prefaces, which combined have made me more wary of his claims, and more likely to do due diligence on what's being said and who is saying it, than I think they were intended to do.

That being the case, future installments of my analysis may not be daily. I need research time, and I'm doing this around After Effects renders, so that time doesn't come easy. The next chapter is called "Doubts about Darwinism." I'm doing my best to approach this openly and without bias, but when the author refuses to do so, when he announces his prejudices in the same breath as he asks me to set aside my own, it makes it much more difficult.

  1. Nor does it make much sense, since -- at least in Christianity -- all they have to do, whatever the transgression, is be genuinely sorry afterward and all is forgiven. But that is also a topic for another day.

  2. I notice he uses the word "kinds" of animals rather than "species," "kind" being the Biblical designation; another flash of the cards he seems to be stacking.


Vinny said...

Very interesting. I think you really hit the nail on the head concerning Strobel's caricature of atheists. The "oh-boy-now-I-can-sin" shtik is pretty lame, although I suppose that the fourteen-year-old Strobel might have been pleased at the prospect of beating his meat without feeling guilty.

Drew Mazanec said...


You're open to the possibility of the existence of an omnipotent God.

However, this entity's actions can never be the best possible explanation for any physical event, at any time, or any place, ever.

So this entity can potentially exist, but absolutely, positively cannot do anything.

Is this accurate, or am I off my rocker, here?

David said...

I'm gathering from he's saying that he does not believe a god exists, but if it turns out he's wrong, so be it. But he's not going to use that miniscule chance that he might be wrong as an excuse to explain away things that happen on this planet. There's always more feasible explanations if you just bothered to look.

Drew Mazanec said...

What if there isn't a feasible naturalistic explanation?

Katie said...

Drew - that just means that we haven't found an explanation for it yet. Just because we didn't know why or how it rained when the world was newer didn't mean it was because God was crying. That was an explanation used because humans really like to explain things, even if the people don't have the smarts, the materials, the know-how, or the equipment to explain them but some great, fantastical, awesome God that we have no evidence for.

This guy sounds like a quack to me.

And I still manage to categorize myself as a Christian.

Speaking on that point, I am just as bothered by your point, Dorkman, that "so many of the religious" only have the idea of God keeping them from doing awful things as you do about atheists being categorized in the same fashion. I would say fairly that there are some crazy few that believe that. Most of us just try to be good because it's good. You notice the ones that are crazy because they get the media attention. I know that was an aside, I just wanted to address it.

Other than that, good post. I am sick and tired of the dichotemy that is set up by so many people: science VS. religion. How about both things can be and are mutually exclusive? But with that point, I think I'm preaching to the choir, if you'll pardon the expression.

David said...

Heh... well what kind of physical events are you refering to? If you're implying something like so-called "medical miracles"... people recovering from diseases or injuries that they shouldn't be able to recover from... for that I'd answer that the same spontaneous evolution that occurs in a species over time to adapt to its surroundings *also* includes us human beings.

Some of us humans have our DNA set up in such a way that one partcicular strain of one particular disease might be able to be fought off and recovered from... unlike the other 99.9999- % of the population. If you happen to be that one case that recovered when everyone else dies... it's called a "miracle"... but it doesn't automatically mean any god did it. It just means we have perhaps witnessed a micro-view of evolution take place.

Drew Mazanec said...

Therefore, a supernatural explanation cannot be the best possible explanation for any physical event, in any time or any place, ever.

In other words, an omnipotent being may theoretically exist, but absolutely, positively, cannot do anything.


Rin said...

I'm getting more and more disillusioned by this guy's work. As a journalist he at least has a sloppy form in his fact finding, and worse an agenda in his writings. Its one thing if this were in a column or book that makes it clear he is talking about his own personal beliefs. But he presents this work as a factual piece of material, when it is striving to do what Christians have been guilt of before; attempting to forcefully convert non-believers.

Dorkman said...

Drew: for a deity to be a feasible -- let alone the best -- explanation, all other avenues must first be exhausted. Anything less is bad science.

As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So if you want to claim that "God did it," it must be established that no possible natural mechanism exists.

Or, alternatively, God could go ahead and show himself and take the credit. That would settle everything pretty handily.

Katie: I think you'd be surprised, outside of liberal Christianity, of just how often the question arises. "If there's no God then why should we be good? Why not just act in our own best interests?" These are not the wackos asking. These are most of the Christians I come across regarding this debate. You and yours know better, which is great, but my experience bears out the quantifier "so many."

Drew Mazanec said...

I'm not sure what you mean by exhausting all other possibilities.

Is there a certain probability level below which a possibility is considered exhausted?

Dorkman said...

I'm not sure what your question is. Could you clarify what point you're trying to make?

Science looks for the natural, measurable causes of observed phenomena. Science does not deal in the supernatural, which is by definition immaterial or unmeasurable. Assuming from the get-go that God did something is an unscientific hypothesis as it is, by its nature, untestable.

Only once you have determined that a phenomenon cannot have occurred through any known natural, undirected physical means does the notion of intervention by a higher power start to come into play.

If God exists and interacts with humankind in any meaningful way, then his effects on this world should be measurable, and should not be something that could be easily mistaken for or attributed to perfectly natural processes.

Daniel Broadway said...

Ok, since my "I like turtles" comment wasn't acceptable, I will be serious for a moment.

I'm with Dorkman. If God exists, he needs to reveal himself and end all debate beyond any question.

Asking people to just "have faith" is silly. I can ask you to believe that I am God, and just tell you to have "faith" and you would laugh in my face, and rightfully so.

However, at least you can see that I DO exist. I may not be a God, but I exist, that is fact. And yet, when you are asked to believe in a being that you DON'T EVEN KNOW EXISTS, AND to accept that he is the God of the universe, all on FAITH, is plain silly.

I consider myself an agnostic, and not an atheist, however, I am not going to waste my time on any religion unless they can supply me with hard evidence that they are right.

Drew Mazanec said...

Here's what I man:

There is a term used by logicians: Inference to the Best Explanation. You hold a big stack of evidence in one hand, and a big stack of explanations in another hand. Like a teenage girl getting ready for her first day of Junior High, you're ready to find the best match, right?

Not so fast! There's too many explanations to analyze in one lifetime. So we'll just have to set some paradigms. Let's assume that I exist, that you exist, and that reading to the end of this post won't turn your brain into a bowl of oatmeal, topped with delicious maple brown sugar.

Your paradigm seems to be this, that a supernatural explanation is viable, so long as the probability of all natural explanations is sufficiently low (How low? I don't know!). However, you have not learned of any natural phenomena whose naturalistic explanations are so low that you have to resort to a supernatural cause.

Is this accurate?

Drew Mazanec said...

Also, when you were a Christian, did you at that time believe there were natural events best explained by supernatural explanations?

Dorkman said...

Drew: I don't believe you're quite using the word "paradigm" properly, but I get your meaning.

To your first question, the answer is "yes, but." Yes, I think that it is possible for observed phenomena to have a source that would be considered supernatural; BUT if that were the case, and the so-called supernatural source were able to be scientifically measured and validated, then that source is, in fact, a perfectly natural source that has merely been hitherto undiscovered or unmeasurable. For the sake of clarity, I will continue to refer to currently unmeasured (and unproven) agencies as being "supernatural." This includes God, demons, and even alien life, being thus far scientifically unproven.

Going back to your first comment:

You're open to the possibility of the existence of an omnipotent God.

However, this entity's actions can never be the best possible explanation for any physical event, at any time, or any place, ever.

So this entity can potentially exist, but absolutely, positively cannot do anything.

Scientifically, as I think I clarified already, the actions of a God cannot be the first hypothesis made for any physical event. To speak of science "pointing to God," you can't start out assuming that God exists, because if that God is omnipotent, then OBVIOUSLY any phenomenon can be explained that way, and that is the death of scientific inquiry and critical thinking.

No, the most feasible non-God hypotheses must first be investigated, and only if they prove inadequate can it be considered evidence of a "supernatural" agent. Even then, the answer is not necessarily "God," and definitely not immediately "Christian God." Even if we do determine -- for example -- that something must have created life on Earth, it could just as easily be aliens as a deity.

Again, extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence.

And to your last question: You are correct, that I have yet to come across, in practice or in any reading I have done, a natural occurrence that requires the theoretical intervention of a supernatural agency -- something that violates the observed laws of nature.

Dorkman said...

And when I was a Christian, I did believe that there could be events that could not be explained by naturalistic means. Then I found out the perfectly natural explanations for many of them. Which actually positions me well to respond to many of the objections Christians could raise to naturalism -- they are precisely the objections I would have raised myself, before I knew better.

Drew Mazanec said...


Some atheists I've talked to try to argue against God's existence from the premise of methodological naturalism and its subsidiary, causal closure. Since both deny the existence of God, using them to argue that God does not exist sounds like circular reasoning.

Thank you for having an open mind.

Rhys said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Mike. Everything so far has been absolutely on the money, especially regarding your (and my) stand-point on morality and the way some Christians approach aethists.

Phi said...

What strikes me most about the author is that he seems to be looking for some sort of ultimate authority, be it God or "science" playing god.

Quotes like "In selecting these experts, I sought doctorate-level professors who have unquestioned expertise" indicate that he really doesn't grasp the scientific method. In fact, it's only science if it's questionable.