Responding to Bema Sheep’s Open Letter

Dear Bema Sheep,

I read your letter with curiosity and thought it interesting to respond. This is due mainly to the binary opening passages which grabbed my attention for all the wrong reasons. But it may be an opportunity for me to restate some things about atheism and make some interesting comments about science. You touch on a lot of topics and get them wrong.

A few points on language

We need, firstly, to agree to some terms. “Atheism” is the top of the list of things that need clearing up. It is not the “claim that God does not exist”, as you describe. Instead, it is simply not the claim a God does exist. Consider this: if I say to you that I have blond hair, in which category would you define your belief in that sentence? (1) I believe you have blonde hair. (2) I believe you do not have blonde hair. (3) Neither of the above. It may seem that I am describing agnosticism. There is some truth to that, what I am describing is also compatible with agnosticism. The difference is that agnosticism extends towards claims like ‘one cannot know’ or ‘I do not know’, both of which are compatible with ‘I do not believe’. In their softer forms, atheism and agnosticism are the same thing.

This definition should also help to position atheism at the proper step of reasoning. Atheism is not a world view. Atheism is a conclusion. That conclusion can be drawn out of many different world views, although we may as well be honest and admit that the following are the most common: physicalism, methodological naturalism and positivism. It’s not limited to that; it is incidental that these are the world views that we most commonly encounter with atheists, not at all defining. Hopefully, this should help you unpick what you present as a bias towards “scientists” and their answers over theistic ones.

The second word is “proof”. In conversations between religious people and atheists I see the religious person introduce the word “proof” the most. Atheists and agnostics tend to stick around words like “demonstration”, “evidence” or “line of reasoning”. This should be something you appreciate: the words the atheists tend to use are a lower bar to jump that “proof”, which is about the complete and absolute negation of doubt. That is not something anyone gets the chance to work with in reality. I take reasoned positions because, outside of maths, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a proven one.

Some corrections on methods and philosophies of science

Going back to your accusation that atheists “just blindly accept the explanation postulated by many in the scientific community regarding how everything started and works”, this simply isn’t true. People with the world views I stated earlier tend to prefer conclusions that are explanations of evidence conforming to certain rational rules. Rules like Occam’s razor, which means one should create only the bare essentials of what is required to explain the evidence, and consistency, which says that answers from within an existing paradigm are preferable (because they are already evidenced). That is why we can comment on “science” regularly with disagreement. Small sample sizes and unconfirmed data often get the critical eye of atheist bloggers and, more importantly, scientist. This criticism and knowing that other people will hold your work to strict rules is the immune system of science. It is not blind acceptance: science has earned this trust with the humility to change its position with evidence and the integrity to allow society to hold them to strict rational rules.

Anyone sufficiently interested in science is fully aware that science is an incomplete discipline; else it would stop. In fact, one of the underpinning principles is ‘fallibilism’, which can tritely be summarised as ‘everything has at least a grain of falsehood in it’, or the position that everything can still be improved and that no theory is perfect. That is why science rarely speaks of ‘proof’ (and is misguided in the times when it does). Atheists―the ones worth having a discussion with, at least―do not believe scientists necessarily have all the evidence and have interpreted it correctly. However, science is the best method we have to get nature to explain itself to us. By now, computer sciences and the physics of macro objects are understood to phenomenal levels of confidence. Although we cannot be certain, it would be astonishing if any fundamental part of that turned out to be wrong. All of science falls onto a spectrum defined in terms of confidence and probability to being wrong. Nothing is at 0 or 100.

Things we simply don’t know yet don’t fall on this spectrum of confidence at all. They are simply things we don’t know. In the 1800s we didn’t know anything about dark matter and energy or quantum mechanics, and since the turn of the 20th century cosmology has developed immensely. The fact these disciples were unheard of or undeveloped in 1812 doesn’t mean they were outside the remit of science: we know of them now. Equally, things we don’t know yet may be in the remit of science in the future. It would be folly to say “I don’t know, yet” is synonymous with “the answer is not to be found by science, and therefore, has an alternate explanation”. Non-science answers to what stars are were not good answers just because science didn’t have an answer yet.

Scientists lie. I know that, you know that. My favourite science liar is Jacques Benveniste (but you can look him up for the hilarity of his lie). The thing is, I know Jacques Benveniste lied because of science and its immune system. Benveniste’s discovery was clearly incongruous to the rest of science; parts of biology and physics would need a major overhauling if he were right. But his experiments were repeated and found to be false. No one could replicate the result he claimed to get over and over again. Scientists lie, but if all of science was a lie there would be a lot of money in being the person who overturned it and revealed the conspiracy to the public. Take the example of Christians Against Dinosaurs. In this video, the vlogger claims that dinosaur fossils are essentially carefully shaped gypsum and are invented for the sake of profit. If this conspiracy were true, paleontologists―especially the junior paleontologists―would be able to make vast amounts of money from exposing it. But this hasn’t happened. Conspiracies are exposed by the immune system of science (think: Piltdown man, discovered to be a fraud by science) and the motivation of underpaid people necessarily being a part of the conspiracy. Although individuals may be dishonest, the scientific communities squeeze those ideas out

The Innocence Project is a fantastic example of the strength of science, not the weakness. As a new mechanism of collecting data, or even a new dimension of evidence (like DNA tests) the conclusions change.

Corrections on the body of scientific knowledge

And… from science you your interpretation of modern science on the three disciples religious people love to not understand. I know that sounds condescending, and it is. I am far from an expert on this matters, I have a personal interest and cannot be said to know much more than can be gleaned from the University of Google. However, one must be willing to be agnostic about things. Remember the question of my blonde hair (or not)? There are some serious misunderstandings in the content of scientific knowledge in your blog, and much of it may well be worth discussing.

There are two Big Bangs. There is the Big Bang singularity, and that is still speculative. There are many theories within cosmogony that actually do away with the singularity as physicists attempt to quantise Einstein’s equation. Those theories are things like Loop Quantum Gravity. There are also still very plausible eternal-universe models, like eternal inflation which speculates that the beginning of our universe was the slowing of inflation of the whole universe to below the speed of light (allowing physical relationships to form). We are simply a slowly-inflating neighbourhood is a much vaster universe.

There are also multiverse theories and explanations that have to do with the exact nature of “nothing”, all of which, as you correctly state, may do away with the question of why these conditions exist in the universe (although it is not inflationary theory that predicts many singularities). It was always a numbers game.

From there you get to abiogenesis: where did life come from? Again, science teaches that a little humility is a good thing. We may never know. However, Martin Hanczyc is one of the scientists forming a very good explanation of one of the possibilities. Jack Szostak is another. Both of those videos are well worth a look. More importantly, their data is available for you to review for yourself. Science is not some mystery where people in white coats say the things they think and their reasons are never discussed.

Abiogenesis is also not thought to be random. There are people working on the mathematical principles of abiogenesis and why chemicals might behave in such a way as to retain energy and thus develop in ways that promote the retention of energy. It is related to how entropy acts in an open system. Open systems are profoundly different from closed ones, and entropy only has to increase in a closed system. If you want to know what might be outside our system and providing input, one only has to look in the sky on a sunny day (science, conveniently, does have an answer). It’s not chance, it’s physics.

We were never guaranteed, and chance plays a role in the exact life that did emerge. But the basic fact of life emerging seems inevitable. As do advantageous mutations. See, the disadvantageous mutations become dead lines. If I wanted to tear apart this principle, I could do it based on mutations occuring (how unlikely are advantageous mutations? 1 in quadzillion! That’s how unlikely!) and without mutations (if life doesn’t show variation there had to be a binary step between chemistry and biology. Such binary behaviour violates evolution!). Given that I can it, doing so must be disingenuous.

Calling you out on rhetoric over reason

Now to God and rhetoric. I hope you can appreciate the definition of “God” is being stretched in your claim that “you [atheists] do have a god… random chance”. Most definitions of a deity necessarily involve some level of personal behaviour, intent or will; random chance doesn’t have that. God is also considered something is deserving of admiration or worship; random chance doesn’t have that characteristic, either. Ignoring that you arrived at the significance of random chance through either suspect or wrong presentations of science, you still haven’t elevated it above ‘natural process’. But you’re calling it God. It’s a suspicious rhetoric. I am willing to stand corrected: if you can provide a meaningful checklist of what would make a thing “God” and show that “random chance” meets that checklist, I shall take this back. Until then, I assume you think it is mocking of atheists, especially as you then compare ‘random chance’ to Satan, making atheists ‘Devil Worshippers’. It’s thick with rhetoric.

You also equivocate scientism (not science, but the trite philosophy of scientism) with atheism. You do this with high-order science (you demonstrate how high-order the science is by getting nearly all of it wrong): cosmogony, abiogenesis, entropy, mathematics. There is no suggestion that an atheist needs to accept or understand any of this. Atheists don’t need to agree with the claims you have made about science or the (much more correct) claims I have made about science. One can have no understanding of any of this and still not believe in a God. The equivocation between atheism and science is yet more sophistry and dishonest rhetoric.

Occam’s razor asks us not to multiply our entities in our explanations. To rely only on explanations involving demonstrable things is what Occam’s razor really says. Talking about Occams razor demanding simplicity is a common parlance for ease of communication. But, even if we take the simple-definition of Occam’s razor, God is not a simple answer. Gods exist in a way that is completely alien to our understanding and experience, therefore the claim of a God necessitates a new branch of existence to be considered. God is meant to be an interactive transcendence, which is not a new concept so much as contrary to understanding we have developed. God is meant to be supremely intelligence, and intelligence is complex. The claim of a God massively multiplies entities in an explanation. There is nothing about the claim of a God that conforms to the rules of Occam’s razor nor of consistency. Not that it would matter: science should teach one to have the humility to admit they don’t know somethings. In that environment, where there simply isn’t enough evidence to make a claim, Occam’s razor doesn’t apply. Your assumption that Occam’s razor should apply here is probably indicative of your bias to prefer Divine answers. But it simply doesn’t work.

Conclusions and Spock

It was actually Sherlock Holmes that said “If you’ve eliminated all other possibilities whatever remains must be the truth”. But that is fallacious thinking, easily summed up by Thomas Edison: “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t”. The fallacy Holmes commits is thinking he has imagined all possible outcomes, thus putting himself in a multifaceted dichotomy which is false. There could always be an option that eludes him (which, ironically, there often was. I don’t know if that was an intentional literary point or not). Any level of reading on the history of science will unveil to the reader the immense failure of Holmes’ fallacy.

However, your misattributed faulty-thinking is the perfect close to your open letter as it reflects the rest of the letter so well. (I have no issue with being condescending, you set the tone in your own letter.) You don’t demonstrate any understanding of the science you denigrate, you don’t understand the logical tools you’re attempting to use and you don’t realise when you talk yourself directly into false dichotomy.


5 thoughts on “Responding to Bema Sheep’s Open Letter”

  1. That 99.9999% of all atheists believe in the proven hoaxes called global warming and ObamaCare, is proof that atheists couldn’t care less about any sort of proofs, facts or science.

    Neither do atheists understand the connection between government and justice, or government and economics despite the centuries during which various societies provided proof of those very connections.

    In fact, atheism has proven itself 100% retrograde.

    But atheists don’t care since they their passion is to sell retrograde as if it were progress.

  2. Good work … and you used “equivocate” in a couple of places in place of “a false equivalence(?)”. To equivocate is “to use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone.”

    The thing I find frustrating in a “know your enemy” way, is that if Evolution is true, Fundamental Christianity is false. Period. This explains the anti-science attitude of so many fundamentalists. But, since there are a great many of those folks who are vigorously arguing how science is “wrong,” why is it so few have actually made the effort to understand the science they are arguing against? Time and again, they get it wrong. Are they afraid that if they do understand it and find it correct that it will cost them their faith? Are they just incapable?

    Usually in the pack of those brave enough to enter the den of the bear, there are some who figure out how to deal with it when they come up against it. So far, I have yet to meet any of these worthies.

    1. Steve,

      You have a point about, “if Evolution is true, Fundamental Christianity is false.”

      I only lasted six weeks as a fundamentalist Protestant.

      With that having been said, I only lasted 30 seconds as an atheist.

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