Ray’s Comforting Private Universe – Pt 1

Christian apologist – New Zealand’s own Ray Comfort is a prolific author, but the question is, does he have anything worthwhile to say?

With more than 70 Christian book titles to his name he clearly has a message. On a recent 60 minutes episode here in New Zealand, Ray Comfort claimed he has pretty much had the same message in every book, just a different cover.

This is abundantly clear in his new book “You Can Lead An Atheist To Water But You Can’t Make Him Think”. We will leave the reference to atheists being male aside, the somewhat provocative title leads one to suspect there will be some good evidence inside that will dash an argument skeptical of Christianity to the ground, kick it a few times and leave it reeling in the gutter. If you were led to believe this by the cover, you will be greatly disappointed.

I actually like Ray Comfort. He is from New Zealand, so am I, he is a kind natured guy and means well, but he does himself, and Christianity, a great disservice when he opens his mouth or puts pen to paper. Again, this is evident in his latest book.

Not even rational

The book has really two parts, none of them evidence against atheism and none very convincing to skeptics. Ray isn’t concerned about rational arguments, he seems content with the same design fallacies and faith-based arguments that he has sprinkled through all his other works.

The first part really sets the scene with a grossly generalised strawman argument that states skeptics and atheists are “angry”. I think it is interesting to point out, that as a skeptic myself, the skpetical community is more bemused and bored with the same old arguments time and time again being used as “evidence”.

Much of this so called “evidence” is really flimsy and simple to the point where it is impossible to take seriously intellectually. Still, the arguments are convincing to a great many, but I maintain that if a Christian is serious about their faith then they ought conduct their reasoning without resorting to perversion of science and logic to suit their own ends.

The second part of the book is vintage Comfort – Christian arguments for Christianity and nothing that would keep a skeptic awake at night wondering. I won’t go into the explicitly Christian philosophy second half of the book – this review is more concerned with Ray’s scientific claims. If you have read any of his earlier works (which are mainstream aplogetic arguments) then there really is no need to read this book.

The first part of the book fails miserably as an argument for God and Christianity for three main reasons: (a) Too much of Comfort’s argument relies on problematic design arguments (teleology) of the William Paley ilk; (b) Comfort demonstrates a willful ignorance of basic science and distorts science in order to sound convincing (though I think he genuinely believes his interpretation of science is valid; and (c) He makes no effort to pin his arguments down with sound logic – he just throws arguments out there riddled with logical fallacies.

These three attributes do not make for a very solid or convincing argument – hence the reason skeptics remain unconvinced and… “angry”.

Without further ado, here is the argument for an intelligent designer (Christian God) as stated in the first few chapters of Comfort’s new book:

Ray’s “it seems logical to me” arguments from design

Well design arguments aren’t the exclusive domain of Ray Comfort – William Paley wrote about them more than 200 years ago. The teleological argument – that the way things are looks designed so there is a designer logic has several flaws and too many limitations to be evidence of anything, especially God.

Design arguments are based on subjective circular reasoning

Ray’s logic:
(1) Look, the world is full of complex things.
(2) These things have purposes.
(3) If things in nature have purposes then they are designed with these purposes in mind. (4) Purpose infers designer.
(5) [Wave the magic wand] The fact there are luscious fruits, beautiful flowers, water, air to breathe all shows that God exists [hey presto].

When you examine this argument you will notice several logical fallacies:

Firstly, the design argument is a non sequiter. “It looks like it is designed therefore this confirms the existence of a designer.” This simply does not follow. It is not possible to determine there is purpose and design in something if we have no other examples to compare it to. Ray looks at a painting and says, we know there must be a painter.

He will typically mention a few other examples and then make the fallacious leap to nature (the same argument Paley made about watches). We know watches are made by watch makers, we have can go and see them in action. The problem is, we have never seen a universe being formed, we cannot just infer design and leave it at that.

Charles Darwin destroyed the “it looks designed so there must be a designer” intuitive reasoning with an elegant explanation of how complexity emerges via natural forces from simplicity. Natural selection really did cripple the design argument forever after. Maybe this is why creationists will do whatever they can to divert people’s attention away from these inconvenient observations. Scottish philosopher David Hume also destroyed the teleological argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

A second logical fallacy at work here is that the design argument requires observational selection – looking at natural objects and inferring design requires ignoring those that don’t fit the bill (often called “cherry picking”). The design argument can therefore be said to be developed out of convenience.

Ray can argue all he likes about the beauty and purpose inherent in creation but he ultimately can’t escape that obvious examples of poor design. Viruses and bacteria stalk the Earth killing millions of people every year; asteroids that are indifferent to our survival fling around in orbits that eventually put some of them on a collision course with Earth. About two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water and much of the land is uninhabitable because of ice, mountains and desert. As physicist Victor Stenger points out, when you look at the physical universe it is exactly as you would expect if natural forces and processes brought it about. Design is an illusion – a natural tendency given the way our brains have evolved.

The design argument is an argument from ignorance – there is no positive evidence for a designer. Furthermore, Voltaire argued that even if it was determined that the universe was designed this could not prove the existence of any specific deity.

To Comfort, nature is not only confirmation of God but also of his nature, in that he has kindly given human beings everything they need for survival. Though Comfort does not use the example in his book, he has posited that a banana is “an atheist’s nightmare”. The banana, he reasons, is so obviously designed for human consumption that it follows God made it. He then says when we look at all of creation we see the same design. It is not hard to see where this argument fails miserably… What about pineapples and coconuts? Are they obviously designed for consumption? Nuts? Shellfish? Meat?

One last point on the design argument. Because human beings are innate teleologists – we naturally infer purpose and design in nature – this is confirmation of why science was created in the first place. Our own perception and cognitive faculties have inherent flaws and biases that prevent us from being fully rational. Science is the methodology that has helped us overcome these limitations and has contributed to the progress of our species. Ray Comfort merely confirms this in the way he approaches argumentation.

I have run out of space here due to an overzealous job of dismissing the argument for an intelligent designer from observation. The deconstruction of Ray Comfort’s selective interpretation of science will continue in the next post where we look at thermodynamics.

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