Monsanto as a Force for Good

Regardless of whether we are comfortable admitting it, we live in a world of stupendously cheap food. Globally, in 2007-8 there was a spike in food prices which, although has now receded, acted to demonstrate that food is not as secure and as cheap as our lifestyles implicitly assume. In developing countries many of us don’t see the urgency, as a 20% increase in food prices simply means we’ll buy less meat and more pulses and ultimately just foot the increased bill; we can afford it. Such a luxury is not afforded in the developing world.

During the 2007-8 food crisis event, Thailand put a cap on its food exports to ensure they improved their self-sufficiency. This is ‘economic marginalism’ in action. To word that differently, the comparatively luxurious uses of food―in this case as an economic commodity―was squeezed out by the more urgent physiological uses of food, keeping the Thai population alive. As much of Thailand’s economy is based food exports, the impacts of this decision are clear (however, the choice was an easy one). In Tanzania, access to food was exacerbated in 2007-8 by another country leasing vast areas of farmland to feed itself: Saudi Arabia, a net importer of food, leased productive land in Tanzania to help secure their own access to food, with an obvious detriment to the food security within Tanzania.

Food security and insecurity is almost euphemistic language for what we’re really talking about: malnourishment, undernourishment and starvation. The risk of starvation, globally, is increasing. (That is a much more immediate way of saying food security is at risk.) This global trend is tied to many factors, including economic speculation, extreme weather events, crops for non-food uses (like biofuel) and food insecurity becomes its own feedback as that diminishes global stockpiles and encourages export bans. Farming is also a massively energy-intensive process, which means food prices are linked to energy prices (which often means it’s related to oil prices).

Food security, then, relies on making food prices as impervious to these variables as possible. Monsanto is one of the giant forces that could promise very real security to at least some of these issues. Genetically modified crops (GM crops) are an extraordinarily powerful tool: it has improved the nutrient profile of food, giving us Golden Rice and helped to decrease malnourishment; drought-resistant crops are limiting the relationship between severe weather events and food supply; pest-resistant crops reduce dependence on pesticides, thus reducing the relationship between food prices and volatile energy prices; increased Nitrogen uptake and metabolism reduce the need for fertilisers, which similarly starts to couple food and energy prices.

GM crops are not the one-stop, magic bullet answer; progress has been made in developing some conventional breeding techniques and farming practices globally need to be improved. Water management is severely lacking in many places, and that has implications for food security too. Eco-efficiency is a topic the world’s farmers need to take seriously. However, GM crops are a very real tool in the arsenal for combatting food security globally.

GM technology is a tool. It can be abused: it can be used to make pesticide-tolerant crops instead of pesticide less-dependent crops, it can be used to promote ecologically destructive farming practices. However, these would be very poor uses for GM technology and would rightly be denigrated as squandering very real opportunities. Monsanto does not appear to be in the business of such practices. In fact, Monsanto does a considerable amount of work that simply appears charitable and positively collaborative.

Cynicism isn’t always bad, and believing that Monsanto offers charitable work and collaborative work on sustainable agriculture for no reason other that marketing and self-image may be a justified stance. But that doesn’t undo the fact the work actually happens. You could be increasingly cynical and claim that Monsanto’s scholarship programs, education and tools are all tailored to increase use of their products; that their good works are inherent to their business model to drive up demand. That may preclude them from winning the Nobel Peace prize, but it doesn’t, again, actually deal with the simple fact that the work happens. (As a brief counter to that cynicism, developing a business model that has sustainability as an inherent part of what a companies does is difficult to call a bad thing.)

Monsanto is not only the leader provider of GM technology and crops, but also works closely with a variety of organisations to ensure biodiversity and agricultural sustainability. As a result, they are a significant player in the battle to increase global food security.

Why is God good?

I have heard many times from apologists and blogosphere theologians that God must be good. I am then given some variety of bad reasoning: circular arguments about God’s nature being good because goodness is defined by God’s nature, brute force arguments about God being either “Perfect” or the Creator and this is therefore just the case, the argument that human-defined morality simply isn’t binding or good enough―as if nature owes them a morality they are comfortable with, or the argument that one has felt that God is loving―although that argument tends not to vindicate domestic abusers.

I want to attempt to get under the brute force argument. The argument is that God is perfect and therefore God is morally good, because moral goodness is a set that falls under all-round perfection. The Creator argument is that God created all things and therefore must have also created all morality. But both argument fall prey to simple switch: replace good with bad and the arguments are just as strong.

God could be morally evil, and moral evil could be the subset of all-round goodness. I know that sounds absurd to us and makes me appear like some moral monster. But the intuitive sensation we get that “perfect” entails “moral goodness” we get from standing with an approximate understanding of what we mean by moral goodness. We have the intuitive sense that moral goodness has something to do with compassion, affection and avoiding harm and that these fill the set of perfection. This is more apparently true when one realises that the contrary seems more evidently true: hate, disdain and the encouragement of harm are blemishes on attempts on perfection. We use “perfect” and “extremely good” as near-synonyms, and morality is just one branch of general goodness and therefore perfection. Anything that is all-round perfect must be morally perfect, which would be the same as morally good.

But that is our intuitive sense, and its applicability dissolves when we are looking at the cause of such a relationship. Once we admit to the relationship between goodness and perfection being our subjective choice and that there is no brute reason for this relationship, the question becomes valid: assuming God’s perfection, why can moral evil not be the fundamental element God fulfils?

The easy answer is that evil is the absence of goodness, that God fulfils the positive quality and absence is the contrasting quality. God is good; absence of goodness is evil. But this simply isn’t true. Evil is more than the absence of goodness, and goodness is more than the absence of evil. Imagine a world of just rocks. There is no “moral goodness” in this world, there are only rocks; but there is no moral evil either. Although goodness and evil may readily be identified by their contrast to each other and so be mutually exclusive of each other, neither is merely the absence of the other. The question remains: why does God’s perfection not consist of moral evil instead of moral goodness?

A similar rebuttal exists when claiming that God is the Creator of all things. The claim is that God is the creator of all things and that morality is a thing, therefore God created morality. Moral goodness is also a thing, so God created moral goodness and God must be perfectly morally good to have created moral goodness. This begs the question, of course: the argument assumes that morality “exists”, which is a rather trite conclusion which can only really be reached after a discussion about both existence and morality. (And to not be entirely circular, those discussions can’t rely on God’s authority.) There are several other rebuttals, like making assumptions about an author based in its works: computers are entirely obedient and rational entities; their creators are not entirely rational and obedient.

But, I want to come back to this idea of evil being the absence of goodness. The argument makes the implicit assumption that moral evil is not a thing; that evil doesn’t exist. If evil did exist, then God would also be the author of that and then somehow God would be both perfectly evil and perfectly good. The argument becomes that evil doesn’t exist, but is the quality we label actions that are devoid of God’s goodness. (The argument then absolves God of any guilt by saying that freewill is good, even though freewill is the sole creator of evil.) But, again, evil is more than the absence of good. When a good person dies of natural causes, and thus their goodness disappears with it, they do not leave evil. Equally, when an evil person died, goodness does not suddenly flood their corpse. Inaction has no goodness in it, but it is not evil; it is entirely dispassionate. Throwing knives in a maternity ward is evil, but that is an action.

Thus, if goodness exists then we have agreed on a definition of existence that means evil also exists (one is not simply the negation of the other). If existing means that God authored it, then God authored both evil and goodness. If one tries to argue that God created goodness and humans created evil through their freewill, one has no recourse to defend against exactly the game we are playing in this post: What if We Swap them? What if God created evil and people created goodness through their freewill? After all, it makes more sense that we would want to live in a world of goodness than of evil; we have more reason to create goodness than to create evil.

Not that authorship matters to this question, because authorship doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the author.

Altruism and Selfishness

All the things you intentionally do are self-motivated. Even when one thinks they are being forced into a situation, there is a fundamental internal factor at play: It is our internal drive to be accepted or not be bullied that makes us conform to certain social norms; it is preservation of self-image that encourages us to be seen doing certain things; and some time it is just our love of an idea that compels us to behave how we do. I hope nothing so far has been taken facetiously, because understanding that may help us to have important social and ethical discussions about the nature of coercion (perhaps the only pertinent point to be taken from this post).

However, I don’t want to talk about coercion (yet). Instead, I want to talk about what the realisation that all our intentions are internal means to us, when it comes to being selfish or altruistic. The accusation of being selfish is one that tends to be powerful, and wishing to avoid such a criticism may be a motivating factor in behaving in a way that is altruistic on its face. And that underpins our problem: all altruistic actions can be reduced to reveal them as selfish actions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines altruism as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”. It doesn’t take much cynicism to reveal that such behaviour simply doesn’t exist. To motivate a person to action, there must be a selfish reason; else, why are they acting?

As an example, take what may be the most obviously altruistic action one can perform: donating money to a charity in a foreign country. Something like well building in Africa or protecting the Orangutans in Asia. The donor is unlikely to ever directly benefit from this work: they already have a supply of water and they are completely anonymous to the beneficiaries, so the beneficiary cannot shower the donor with gratitude and gifts at some later date. There doesn’t seem to be anything selfish about this, but to see where the selfishness lies one simply just needs to ask this: “what did they donate any money?”

Immediately one can think of noble sounding answers: the donor cannot abide the thought of people being without water, the donor feels guilty for corroborating in the destruction of Orangutan habitats through their consumer choices, the donor feels “white guilt”. These examples, respectively, mean the donor was acting to alleviate their own horror or absolve their own guilt. Although these actions do not necessarily conform to the Merriam-Webster definition of selfishness (“lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure”) they do violate the “selfless” dimension of altruism. True altruism, then, does not exist.

My brother challenged me on this. He cited a fictional example of a person who helped a person they did not like. The recipient had moved to another country, and the donor made a large donation anonymously (through a PayPal account, or something). The donation was large enough to noticeably affect the donor. Because this is fictional, we cannot simply ask the donor why they did this. We simply have to speculate. I speculated that their poor relationship may be something the donor feels guilty about and so wanted to square it themselves. My brother denied this, and so I speculated again: perhaps it is simply a part of this person’s self-identity that they are a good person and this helped them continue that self-image. My brother denied this, too. I pondered the possibility the donor felt bad for his enemy’s situation, and wanted to alleviate that sense of discomfort. My brother denied this, as well. My brother also denied all discussion of empathy. It became apparent by brother was not just discussing a fictional case, but a fantasy one: to challenge my point, he denied every possible motivation. The thought experiment was void because it discussed decision-making in nonsensical terms.

However, people can tell the difference between a person who donates to charity and a person who pushes in at a queue; a person who helps an elderly person cross the road and a person who barges others into the road to get by; a person who will hold an elevator door and a person who will punch another in the face. There seems to be an identifiable difference between what we call altruism and selfishness, even though I just argued they are the same thing. I used to put this confusion down to the directness of the personal motivator and the actual action. When the motivator and the action are directly linked (“I want that sandwich” > “I take that sandwich”) we call it altruism when the motivator and the action are indirectly related (“I feel bad that those people are hungry” > “I don’t want to feel bad” > “I don’t want them to be hungry” > “I buy them a sandwich”). But I have recently came up with a new definition for altruism that removes the cynical view of altruism as another side of the coin of selfishness: altruism is the quality of being able to derive personal satisfaction from the safeguarding or improvement in the wellbeing of others. This definition fully acknowledges the paradox of altruism being selfisness, but differentiates it is from selfishness by being about the improved wellbeing of others.

Completion: Finishing the questions I can’t finish.

At the start of all this I admitted to losing my cool a little. And this is the post it all happened in. And it’s quite a fitting climax, because I think that was the goal. It’s a complete spread (informally known as a Gish Gallop); it’s too many questions, too loosely related and requires me to take too much time to answer it. It’s also a little repetitive, as the answers to other questions address these. But the first reason I lost my cool was the reference to rape. Here’s the end of my little project on addressing the nonsense. If you think you have better questions for atheists, share them in the comments.

37. Why should be it wrong to rape if God is not real?
Ponder, honestly, the horror of this question. Consider the implication that the questioner only abstain from rape because they believe it is God’s command. This is very unlike me: I don’t rape because rape is f*cked up. It induces fear, horror, shame, guilt and can destroy people’s lives. If right and wrong mean anything, they relate exactly to consciousness and wellbeing, and that is why rape is wrong: it lowers wellbeing.

38. Why is The Passion of The Christ very high on the Box Office?
The Matrix. Avatar. Star Wars.

39. How can America not be a Christian nation if there are way more churches than mosques?
This depends on what you mean by “Christian nation”. If you define a nation by the religion that has the highest number of adherents, then fine: America is a Christian country. But that is not how we define it. America is built by people who wanted to flee religious persecution and all the paperwork that underlies how it functions is expressly secular.

40. How is the bible not real if it’s the most popular book read by man?
Ah, “The Bible”. Not only do I doubt that it is the most read book, I doubt it is even a book. The Bible has been printed by a variety of publishers over centuries in a variety of languages. The content is demonstrably different in one print to another.The number of copies of the Bible that have been printed is reported to be in the region of 5 billion, but I don’t necessarily think that means 5 billion people have read it. I think Bibles and Korans sit in people’s homes as a sign of faith, often not being read. (I base this on a comparatively small sample of people I’ve spoken to.)
However, let’s take the assumption and run with it. The assumption is that the higher a book’s readership the more closely it reflects reality. Let us look at the tops selling books of all time to see if there is a clear pattern of decreasing reflection of reality the fewer books sold.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
And then there were None, Agatha Christie
Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin
She: A History of Adventure, H Rider Haggard
I don’t know what my readers make of this, but I can’t figure out any relationship between the truth of a book and the number of copies sold.

41. How did the moon form?
Magic? I mean that as a serious question. If we completely disregard the current hypothesis that the moon was caused by Earth being hit by a very large body while it was still liquid, meaning the escaping mass was also still liquid, so what? Assume the hypothesis I just described had never been put forward and no other hypothesis had been put forward. Now what?
Even completely ignoring the fact we actually have an answer to this question, I don’t understand what it’s doing in this list.

42. Did you know that famous scientists like Newton, Sir Richard Owen, Einstein, Galileo, and Copernicus were creationists?
I can’t be bothered to Google each of those scientists in turn to see whether they were creationists or not. Newton and Copernicus probably were, Einstein almost certainly was not. But, again, so what? I have to guess what the assumptions being made are, so here’s a look at my reasoning: these questions are promoted as being aimed at atheists, therefore the questions are likely pro-religious; Creationism is being equated to religion; the non-specialist beliefs of certain scientists (even those from antiquity) are seen as evidence of Creation. Therefore, it is my best guess that this question could be reworded as follows: Newton was a creationist! Checkmate, atheists.
The bottom line is this is a nonsense argument. All the named scientists were born before Darwin’s theory was developed, and all bar one of them were physicists. More importantly, science doesn’t work by naming prophets out of people and demanding we accept their positions. Science works by sharing the evidence regardless of personal position and preferences.

43. Why do we not see black people come from white people?
Because, biology.

44. Why are fruitflies still fruitflies in the lab experiments if they are claimed to prove evolution?
This is actually one of the more interesting questions. One of the poorly understood elements of evolution is that the result of evolution is increased diversity within a phylogenetic branch. Take, for example, dogs. Dogs belong to the family Canidae. No matter how much variation takes place, even if we create a breed of dog that doesn’t breed with other dogs, we still expect it to belong to the family Canidae. It will be another phylogenetic branch and will have a different species name (something other than familiaris). It will likely still be in the genus Canis and almost certainly still in the Canidae family. And, as such, we would probably will call is a dog. “Dog” is a vague term.
The same is true of fruitflies. All were are looking for is the variation, change and extra branch on the phylogenetic tree. But the variation happens at levels very low down the phylogenetic hierarchy.

45. Did you know that the Piltdown Man was a hoax used for Darwinist propaganda?
Well, kind of. Charles Dawson did, it seems fair to say, intentionally create a hoax. But he did so for personal recognition; it was not martyrdom for the cause of Darwinian theory. He presented an orangutan’s jawbone and human skull as belonging to the same structure. And it was not well received: the scientific community treated it as controversial from the outset.
More importantly, the Piltdown Man was exposed as a hoax. A scientific community that believed in Creation would be entirely unequipped to identify the Piltdown Man as a hoax: it would have been willing to accept that God created anything and the Piltdown Man would fit those parameters quite readily. It is only equipped with understanding of diversity and how it forms that anyone could identify a hoax. It is only with evolutionary science we can actually see what is and is not a plausible candidate for our ancestry.
If you think that the Piltdown Man being a hoax discredits evolution, then that discredits the very science that discredits the Piltdown Man. Surely you see that this is an issue.

46. Why do we not see frogs turn into birds?
Because, science.

47. Why is Fox News dishonest if it is a network run by truthful Christians?

48. Why did Hitler fail to make a superior race if evolution is true?

Phase 3: Continuing to pull apart the nonsense questions I’ve been promised I’ll fail

My series of answering these questions is continuing and now we are onto the third batch of 12. The questions so far have been wayward and my job has not been to answer them, but to unpick what the questioner is even on about. Luckily, the implicit work–the work of showing the questioner is an idiot–has been done very effectively by the questioner himself. I suspect even some religious readers have noticed that.

We have identified misunderstanding of evolution and lies about atheists. across the next 24 (and particularly these 12) questions, we will see the immature and underdeveloped views of the questioner on the topic of ethics and amazing ignorance about science.

25. If creationists can’t do science, then why does the website Answersingenesis have proven science articles from creationists that do science?
Answers in Genesis has non-religious articles in them, so they can be scientific without ever validating their religion. Some of the religious or creationist articles published are full or pre-amble and irrelevancies which are scientifically accurate (although, amusingly, sometimes even the irrelevant preamble is wrong or meaninglessly simple). But the core of their argument, the bit where they get religious, is always nonsense. I’m happy to be shown wrong here, but I am frequently sent to Answers in Genesis when debating; I’ve never seen an accurate article that supports God.
It’s not that creationists can’t do science, as I said in the answer to question 1. It’s about the fact that when science and one’s religious leaning contradict, the authors treat science as if it should bend to religion, not the other way around. This is a bias.

26. If evolution is true, then why can’t white people compete to be good in basketball like black people? After all, white people can’t jump!
Whether this question is even based on accurate assumption is debatable. On the metapopulation and metadata levels, this is true: average and peak athletic performances do differ between distinct groups of people. However, defining these distinct groups as “black” or “white” is very difficult to do on a genetic basis. However, I will happily play Devil’s advocate and simply accept this assumption despite its questionable basis.
What aspect of evolution suggests distinct groups within a species would have identical athletic performances? Generally speaking, there are groups of physical and physiological differences between nationalities and ethnicities. One is that black populations are generally more athletic, and the elite of those populations tend to outperform the elite of white populations in running and jumping. It gets specific, to the point that Kenyans are good long distance runners and it’s no coincidence their subsistence relies on them herding sheep on foot. Better sheepherders get more food, that offers more security to their family and those beneficial genes: it’s an athletic skill that matters on an evolutionary perspective.
For white people to become as good as black people at basketball or running, it would need to matter to white people from the perspective of evolution (like it has in many histories of many populations).

27. Where do you decide to fit God in your everyday life if you don’t believe in him?
I’m not sure the question makes sense. God’s entire role to me is as an interesting philosophical challenge. Creationism doesn’t really fit the bill, as nothing new has been said is some time; science and scientists have rebuttals to all the arguments Creationists have.

28. Why is Christianity the fastest growing religion if it’s false?
There are many metrics for “fastest growing religion”. The most meaningful measure is by number of converts; this is people whose mind has been changed. When looking at converts, Islam is the fastest growing. But it’s not a brilliant metric because some of the converts have been convinced not by reason, but by force. Alternatively, absolute numbers are a good metric. And for that, Christianity does seem to be the fastest growing. But the absolute numbers are skewed by birth rates. Christianity is prevalent throughout Africa (arguably because of colonialism), in countries where the birth rate is extremely high. The new generation inherit the religion of their parents, and so that religion spreads by birth, not by reason.
False ideas do spread for many reasons. The link between the MMR injections autism is false but spread very quickly. One of the most important things that lie used as a vector was fear (and scientific illiteracy).

29. Do you feel free to commit murders, homosexuality, go to strip bars, steal, commit adultery, and do other sins since you believe there is no God?
No. There are plenty of good reasons to be “good”: game theory, reciprocation, group work and productivity, personal sensibilities. I don’t feel free to “commit… homosexuality” because it simply isn’t my sexuality (although, if it were my sexuality, I hope I would feel free to “commit” it). As for adultery, it depends on your definition: I’ve never been married.
I went to a strip-bar once and I didn’t like it, but I feel free to go and you’d be hard pushed, I think, to categorise that as a sin. I think that’s important, because the author has confused the social norm of not really accepting strip-bars as family friendly places with a religious sin.

30. Why do the fossils say no to evolution?
They don’t. I assume the questioner means this as a reference to Dr Gish’s Book Evolution: The Fossils Say No. I haven’t read the whole book, but I have looked at Gish’s lecture of the same title as well as book summaries. His arguments are pretty poor. They are about the flood, mostly.
Fossils form well in water, and don’t really form when dry and take several hundred thousand years to form. Knowing that, what would you imagine to see, globally, in the archaeological record, if there were a flood? That’s right, you would expect to see a hugely dense layer of fossils are dating to the same time. This is because there would have been a mass-extinction and plenty of water to encourage fossil formation. We do not see that. What Gish argues is that because we find fossils atop some mountains, there was a global flood: it must have been wet enough for fossils to form atop a mountain, and that means a global flood. The thing is, that’s not true either. Take the Himalayas: there is a lot of oceanic character to the Himalayas, but that is very different to a one off flood that lasted a few days; oceanic characteristics take a much longer time to form. The land that forms the Himalayas now was beneath an actual sea for some time, not just a small flood. Said sea is known as the Paleo-Tethys Ocean. The ocean was displaced by a geological orogeny caused by uplift as the Eurasian plate subducted the Indian subcontinent.
Gish also takes issue with reconstructions. We have to winder if there is anything about science he actually accepts (even if he does have a PhD).

31. Why did Darwin admit that how the eye formed is impossible?
Quote mining is the act of taking a quote that superficially says one thing and spreading that quote, regardless of whether continuing to read the original source changes the meaning of the quote. Observe: Darwin on the evolution of the eye.
“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

32. Where did everything come from if there is no God?
No one really knows. The Big Bang phase marks the beginning of the intelligibility of our universe. At that point, all the matter already existed. Where it came from is a mystery. There is the ‘Big Bang singularity’ hypothesis, famously, which is being fleshed out by understanding of quantum mechanics that allows for everything to emerge at random. Alternatively, the ‘Eternal Inflation’ hypothesis postulates that our universe has become intelligible because we are a small pocket of a greater universe, and in our pocket the expansion has slowed enough to allow causality. This would allow for matter to be eternal, and for complexity to arise once the inflation rate has sufficiently slowed.

33. If there is no God, then why do we have laws that govern us, such as speed limits?
Speed limits are the perfect example of why laws and rules have nothing to do with God. There are no speed limits in the Bible. They are a human construct based on the best evidence for both safety and productivity (both economic and personal). Higher speed limits are more dangerous, lower one scupper our productivity (or, at least, that’s the idea). To an extent, that’s what all the laws are: liberty versus security; rights versus responsibilities. Laws are human inventions and they vary from country to country.
A good rebuttal question is this: “Why do we have varied laws to govern people, if a God exists?”

34. Do you know where you are going when you die?
I―anything I am―probably ceases to be at death. All our understanding of the mind suggests the mind depends on a functioning brain. At death, the brain ceases, and so does the mind.

35. Why do we not act like monkeys if it is true we came from monkeys?
Social evolution. We rely on our tribes differently. We have the resources to ponder ethics and politics. But, more interestingly, it is amazing how much we share with chimpanzees: metacognition and preponderance of fairness. I wouldn’t write-off other primates are mindless and uncivilised, nor be so fast to assume humans are profound and cultured. We share more similarities than many people are comfortable with discussing.

36. Why do we display The Ten Commandments in the courtrooms if you say the Bible is not real?
People mistakenly believe that the Commandments are a basis for our morality. To me, that suggests they haven’t noted the redundancy of what did make the top 10 and the glaring omissions like child abuse and rape.

The second collection of answers to questions we’ve been promised atheists can’t answer

In the previous post I started answering questions from this blog post, and we got a glimpse of what the author was getting at in their attempt to question atheism: they conflate religion with creation and morality, by contrast making atheism evolution and some variety of nihilism or relativism.

Now we’re looking at the next 12 questions I cannot answer because I’m not religious, starting with question 13. By chance, they are a little more political and varied.

13. Why is Richard Dawkins afraid to debate Ray Comfort?
Richard Dawkins has said in very clear terms that he won’t debate creationists because it artificially exaggerates their presence in society by being in discussion with scientists. If Creationism withstood a trial by science it would be Science and other reputable scientific journals. Professional scientists are not debating evolution on the level of whether it is true: the theory of evolution has withstood a trial by science and the debates are about the details of ancestry and phylogenetics.
That said, I don’t know that the questioner knows Dawkins is afraid. He might be, for Comfort is a trained rhetorician and debater. Dawkins is not. That means in a stood-in-front-of-a-crowd-and-judge-by-a-layman-audience debate, Comfort has the advantage. Judged by an expert audience, written down, Dawkins has the clear advantage of being right.

14. Did you know Christopher Hitchens was saved before death?
No. I didn’t know that. In fact, I doubt it. I certainly can’t find any evidence this is true. I can find evidence of Christians seeming to relish is spreading the rumour, as Hitchens guessed they would, and some of the rumour-spreading is done by people happy to describe their religion in terms of fear, which is revealing. More importantly, Hitchens addressed this issue himself in his life. He said it is an unpleasant history that rumours of strident atheists having a deathbed conversion are common; Darwin being an example.
In an interview for CNN with Anderson Cooper Hitchens, when asked about a possible deathbed conversion―even if it is when he is alone―said “if it comes it will be when I am very ill; when I am half demented either by drugs for by pain. I won’t have control over what I say… I can’t say that the entity, that by then wouldn’t be me, wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing. I can tell you that: not when I’m lucid.”

15. Are you aware Ray Comfort disproved atheism with a banana?
Again, the atheism/evolution confusion is present. But, did you know that a natural banana looks nothing like the banana Comfort was holding, but has been selectively bred? The banana he used is the result of all the mechanisms of evolution, sped up by the intentional selection made by humans. And, even if that weren’t the case, even if the modern banana were entirely natural, Comfort’s argument still doesn’t prove anything.
A hidden assumption in Comfort’s “If you study a well made banana…” presentation is that the purpose of a banana is apparent: the banana was made for people, because God’s plan is human convenience. That is a semi-well defined claim that we can then properly investigate. Then the problem of suffering, pain, anatomical inefficiencies, parasites and disease all challenge the premise that God’s design was about human convenience. If you try to dodge these challenges, you lose the definition of the purpose of the design, which handicaps your ability to speak of design.

16. Why do people laugh at evolutionists?
The crocoduck, human offspring from chimpanzee parents and frogs to princes are all considerable misrepresentations of evolutionary theory that are, themselves, ridiculous and ludicrous. But, these misrepresentations are commonplace and intentionally spread by people who have been corrected. (This is violation of ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’.) It is these strawmen of evolution that people laugh at. But well-informed people are laughing at the poorly informed people who spread these misconceptions, not evolutionists.

17. How did the planets form when the Big Bang explosion all of a sudden happen? After all, you don’t see round objects form when something blows up.
The Big Bang [sic] didn’t belt-out planets. The Big Bang produced a mess of quantum particles, which expanded, cooled and condensed into hydrogen. Clouds of hydrogen collapsed under their own gravity forming stars. Stars are the nuclear furnaces of the universe, building heavier elements by fusing nuclei of atoms and then exploding, delivering the elements to areas around the universe. They can re-collapse into stars under their gravity or dust can collapse into planets. It’s actually incredibly easy to look up videos and articles explaining this at all levels of education. I have no idea why the questioner happily embarasses themselves by asking this instead of looking it up.

18. If evolution is real, how can it explain gravity, angular momentum, human emotions, and why we worship God?
Germ Theory and Atomic Theory also don’t answer questions of gravity, angular momentum, emotions or faith. And neither should they. Scientific theories explain given, related sets of observations and data. Each scientific theory only deals with well defined aspects of the universe. Evolution explains biological diversity, fossil and skeleton plans, genetics and phylogenetics, resistant bacteria, fossil distribution (when coupled with Tectonic Theory) and some other data.

19. How did pond scum make living things appear out of nowhere?
Can you look a child in the eye and, without guilt, tell the child this is something evolutionary theory claims or predicts? Knowing the 9th Commandment, are you sure you don’t want to retract this question (and many of the others)? Pond scum is complex life, having undergone the same 3.5 billion years of evolution as all other life. Such complex plant life is not expected to become anything other than a plant, especially not a mammal.
It is more appropriate to think of life coming from something much more primitive: organic chemistry. Lipids and proteins form naturally and there are mechanisms by which they count as plausible precursors to replicating life.

20. How can evolution be true if we don’t see pocket watches or airplanes form by themselves?
By what mechanism do you imagine watches and aeroplanes might emerge? Biological evolution depends on generations, heritability, variation and environmental pressures and narrow biological niches. Aeroplanes and watches don’t have this. They don’t have random variation, generations or an environment to adapt to. There is no reasonable analogy between manmade mechanical creations and organic entities.
The imagery this question actually comes from―a Boeing 747 forming from a scrap yard during a hurricane―is more preposterous than the humans born of chimpanzees. Biological change is gradual and so the one-generation step between chimpanzees and humans is a bigger step than nature tends to make (successfully). The step between absolute chaos (a scrapyard) and a well-functioning machine (a Boeing 747) is a bigger step in complexity again.

21. Did you know that dinosaurs and man lived together?
Dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible and no science has found any evidence of this. (Except for in absolute technicalities, like the crocodylia, making crocodiles and alligators modern day dinosaurs, or birds, their descendants). Dinosaurs went extinct approximately 65 million years ago, but it would be a generous estimate to call the human race 1 million years old. So, it’s not at all clear how the questioner came to this conclusion.

22. If evolution is real, then why do caring people like Rick Santorum argue that it must be challenged in the classroom?
Based on Santorum’s work to include the “Santorum Amendment” to the No Child Left Behind act shows that Santorum challenged evolution in the classroom for misinformed reasons. Santorum believed there was continued scientific controversy regarding evolution, but there simply isn’t. There is controversy, but it’s all in the details. It’s not about the overall truth evolution, it’s a scientific fact.
Listening to Santorum discuss his belief that evolution doesn’t belong in the science classroom (and that Intelligent Design does), his theological bias is clear; he feels a ‘Creator’ is a better explanation of some things. He believes this despite not having a clear understanding of evolution. That is a bias.

23. Why are youtube atheists like AronRa and Thunderf00t afraid to debate Ray Comfort?
Thunderf00t has debated Ray Comfort. And AronRa has issued an open invitation for Ray Comfort to debate him.

24. Why do we celebrate Christmas if Christianity is not real?
I don’t mean to open with pernickety semantics, but Christianity is real. The content of Christianity is unsupported or false, but the acceptance of it (which is what Christianity is) is very much real. Christianity is cultural, it was spread by sword and missionary work; it was snuck into aid and hidden in charity work. Because it is cultural, adherence to it doesn’t demonstrate its truth any more than Valentine’s Day shows Eros or Cupid are real, or Ramadan shows Allah is real and Mohammed is the true prophet.
Not only does adherence not show truth, but Christmas is a mix of secular and pagan symbols: the Yule Log, bringing a tree into the house, the big feast etc. The date of Christmas was intentionally picked to ease the transition from paganism. Jesus was born beside a ripe fig tree in the Middle East (according to the Koran): about June.

(Not Very) Clever Questions Atheists can’t (be Bothered to) Answer

Here is a list of questions the author thinks atheists are unable to answer. There is a good chance the questions are insincere and the questions have done the round before. In places they have been answered better, but what’s the point in blogging if I won’t say something someone else has already said better (Lord knows everyone else does).

My plan is to answer the 48 questions across 4 posts of (quick! Do the maths) 12 questions each. I’ve already written all the answers so I know I lose my cool by the last post. I’ll publish them on Wednesdays. Put it in your calendar…

1. If creationists can’t do science, then why do Kent Hovind and Duane T. Gish, who are creation scientists, have professional degrees in science?
Ah, Kent Hovind. I have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for him: he’s charismatic, entertaining and delivers underhanded insults as smoothly as anyone. And he does have a PhD. It is from Patriot Bible University and it is in Christian Education. He doesn’t have any professional scientific degrees that I can find, and many academics have questioned the validity of his PhD. Not least because Patriot university is not accredited, which means there is no way of making sure Dr Hovind met recognised standards to obtain his doctorate.
Duane T Gish is someone I am less familiar with and had to Google. His education and professional work I am much more impressed by. Which is good. I’m glad the question references someone whose degree is worthwhile because it allows me to discuss the heart of the question. This question sets the tone for what we are going to have to do to answer them: address the underlying assumptions being made. Sometimes that is easy (like here) and sometimes it is more tenuous. This question assumes that if one is a creationist, atheists claim they can’t do science. This isn’t true. Some of them can do science. What they can’t do is science, consistently. Sam Harris argues that in some respects, that creationists and other forms of extremists can do science is precisely the concern: by accepting religious dogma on one hand, while possibly being a talented nuclear physicist or virologist on the other, one could be an ideological eschatologist with access to weapons of mass destruction.
I bring up Sam Harris’ idea not to cause fear, but to make it very clear that the assumption that creationists cannot do science is not one that is ubiquitous among atheists.
I say creationists can’t do science consistently because when it comes to the diversity of life on earth, creationists throw out all the philosophies, methodologies and peer review of science (which, if they are a scientist themselves, are all elements that support their definition as well), and actively prefer poorly defined and unsupported answers. That is unscientific.

2. If dinosaurs turned into birds, why are we not afraid of them?
To a certain extent, I leave it to the reader to figure out what the underlying assumptions are. But here’s a few assumptions I think the questioner is either explicitly or implicitly making: all dinosaurs are scary, ‘scariness’ is a genetic trait, said genetic trait cannot be lost over evolutionary time, humans had any opportunity to evolve a fear of dinosaurs specifically. None of which are right.
Fear is a subjective thing with an evolutionary advantage. And fear is effected by certain traits like unfamiliarity (non-genetic), size (genetic) and knowledge (non-genetic). So, birds’ sudden flitting and fast movement might unnerve the occasional person, but in general they are small, familiar animals which we know tend not to cause harm.

3. If homosexuality is right, then how come two people of the same sex not produce a child?
You also cannot produce a child by offering a homeless person shelter and food for a night, nor by defending someone being attacked on the street. The production of children is not the metric by which we measure good deeds or moral things. If you demand that we define a ‘good marriage’ as one that produces children, then the elderly and the infertile should be banned from marriage, as should I as someone who currently doesn’t want one. Marriage is an institution for loving couples, regardless of childbearing ability.

4. What purpose do we have if evolution is real?
What purpose can you give yourself? I am going to blow the horn of religious nihilism again. The assumption of this question is that one cannot have an inherent meaning and that meaning cannot be dependent on human thought. The questioner assumes that ‘purpose’ (what ever that means) must be provided, externally, from a higher power. I don’t think that is a mature idea of purpose. Purpose is about direction, and all of our directions entwine and interact. Yes, some people make their purpose that of chaos as destruction. But the rest of us are searching for some level of harmony and have a response to the rest: prison. Our purposes, generally speaking, are about loving, being loved and being better people.

5. You say Jesus never existed, but have you heard of the Shroud of Turin?
Yes, I have. No one has ever told me why it’s important. If one looks at the details of the Shroud, it simply doesn’t suggest anything about Jesus. It’s carbon dated to the medieval period, it’s a crude picture of a face and body, showing some signs of injury consistent with crucifixion. It was once a common form of punishment and dates to the wrong time.
Even if this tentative evidence was―for some reason― taken as evidence of Jesus, not all atheists deny the existence of Jesus Christ. Plenty of atheists think the writings and saying attributed to Jesus Christ as quite nice. Others accept that such a man could have existed. That doesn’t mean he was magic. And even if he was magic, that doesn’t mean there’s a God.
Taking the Shroud of Turin as evidence of Jesus is a big leap. Lots of people were crucified and lots of people have been moved to create art about Jesus. Either of these facts could explain the Shroud of Turin.

6. Why do we not see humans being born in the zoos from monkeys if we came from monkeys?
Excellent question. Not because it demonstrates some nuanced understanding or contradiction, but for the complete opposite reason: if asked sincerely (this could be a Poe), it belies a massive misunderstanding of evolution. We did not come from chimps; they are our cousins, not our grandparents. We share grandparents.
The grandparent we share is tentatively and colloquially called Pan prior or technically referred to as Chimpanzee-Human Last Common Ancestor (CHLCA). CHLCA lived between 7 and 13 million years ago. CHLCA’s descendants became the distinct groups of the Great Apes; we are not a linear progression from each other, we are parallel lines all coming from CHLCA; evolution is a branching process. That’s why it causes diversity.
Children of Chimpanzees in captivity should be distinctly Chimpanzees; that is the prediction the theory of evolution makes. They will be slightly different to their parents, but should still be distinctly Chimp-y. Asking why we don’t see big leaps, like Chimp to a human, in a single generation is a bit like asking why you don’t go to bed young and wake up old. It’s a gradual process there small changes accumulate over generations.

7. Why do we go to church if God is not real?
Why do others go to Mosques or Gurdwaras? Does their attendance make their Gods real? The reasons some people attend Church are quite interesting. There is a social aspect, where a House of Worship stands as a social space regardless of theology. An ex-partner’s family attended Church so they could get married in a Church, which they only wanted to do for cultural reasons (particularly the expectations of one of their mothers); so cultural and familial pressure is a factor.
Not to mention, sincere belief. Some people go to Church because they sincerely believe a wrong thing. The invasiveness of religion into culture is a historical fact, a relic of times before cultures criticised ideas from authority and before science started answering so many of our questions.

8. How did the Grand Canyon form?
The Rocky Mountains (and, arguably, the Colorado plateau) were created and elevated by compression of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. We think we can reliably date this back to about 80 million years ago. The erosion is the result of many factors and precisely how important each one was is uncertain. The climate, firstly, helps a lot: the desert area means that thermal expansion weathering weakened the rocks and the soils. But, as most people have probably guessed, the river plays the biggest role. Directly, the water erodes the rock through a process called denudation. Put simply, erosion and deposition work together to make flat surfaces (at approximately sea-level. (The unevenness is caused up geological uplift, like tectonics.) This means the river, where it is, buzz-saws through the land towards sea-level. Indirectly, the water in the river supports vegetation which produces organic acids which weaken rock (producing soils). Coupled with the climate, it makes the area very susceptible to denudation.
The river is not the only denuding force. Wind and climatic change over the last 80 million years (but the last 4 millions years in particular) also play a large role in widening the canyon.

9. Do you know that Jesus loves you?
I don’t know that. I have reasoned to doubt it, like that at a best reasonable guess, he’s dead (and more doubtful reasonable claims question Jesus’s existence altogether). But I can believe he would love me if he were alive, even if he hadn’t met me. I have heard of people who claim to ‘love’ everyone and everything, and I can sympathise to a level: I don’t wish any harm to come to anyone (as pedestrian as that sounds, it is proto-universal love).
If Jesus loves me, he doesn’t want me to go to Hell. So, why am I in danger of going to Hell? Does Jesus have no authority over Hell, or does he not really love me?

10. If Christianity is false, then why is it popular?
A quick Google search shows there are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world, between 1.6 and 1.9 billion Muslims and about 1 billion Hindus. To me, it sounds like phone ownership levels (1 billion Android users and 470 million iOS users). Popularity doesn’t indicate truth, else the geocentric view of the solar system would have been correct until we changed our mind. Islam and Christianity are popular because they have been intentionally spread by the sword, torture and missionary work.

11. If you say Christianity is not true, then why do hundreds of people continue to become saved every day?
This is the same question. But I’ll give a different answer. There are aspects of human psychology that are wired for religious thinking. People prefer having a provisional answer to no answer at all. There is also a ‘God network’ in the brain (slightly more complex that a ‘God spot’). It appears to be related to the Limbic system and is most frequently related to fear. This can be good, for fear can change our behaviour. But it can also be hijacked by highly profitable organisations that demand our fear and respect.

12. Why do we not see half trees and half carrots, fronkeys, and crocoducks if evolution is real?
Make an effort to understand the opposing side and even your own side. These questions are promoted as being aimed at atheists, suggesting the divide is between atheists and theists. Yet, reading the questions, it is clearly about Creationist Christians against everyone else. If you are Christian but believe in evolution, then this question is still aimed at you. I bring this up because the questioner appears not to understand that Creationism is not the same as religion and accepting evolution is not the same as atheism. Not understanding that undermines the credibility of the questioner and the pretense used to offer these questions.
However, we don’t see fronkeys or crocoducks because evolution is real. What we do expect to see is an animal that was an ancestor to both, and we should expect such an ancestor to be very old indeed (as birds and reptiles are distant relations). The Spinosaurus is a fair candidate for such an ancestor, living about 95 million years ago.
It is an utter misunderstanding of descent with variation to assume that one animal becomes another by an intermediate hybrid. That is just silly.

Until next time,