Monthly Archives: March 2010

The strange and oft refuted tales of Mr Tallon

But amid much elegance and precision, the details of life and the Universe also exhibit haphazard, jury-rigged arrangements and much poor planning. What shall we make of this: an edifice abandoned early in construction by the architect?

The evidence, so far at least and laws of Nature aside, does not require a Designer. Maybe there is one hiding, maddeningly unwilling to be revealed.

-Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Okay here it is – an examination of the philosophy that underpins belief in God. Let me state upfront that I know this is a tall order. There is an entire branch of philosophy devoted to religion and the claims of knowledge of an otherwise undetectable landlord that overlooks the universe.

I will also say that, for me, the philosophy of religion is absolutely fascinating in that it offers great insights into human reasoning and cognitive biases.

So in the next few posts, I will merely examine the claims of scientist Jeff Tallon in our local rag The New Zealand Herald back in December ’09. Specifically the claims in this story: “Buses, Probability and God”.

Philosophical problems with Tallon’s God argument

In the story he claims that what we know about the complexity and order in the universe leads him to conclude that God exists. Tallon frames this quite cunningly as an argument that is not just his belief, but something we should all accept as self-evident. What he writes, however, is a matter of his personal faith-based beliefs rather than logically consistent and empirically verifiable claims.

His main thesis is a classic argument from design – addressing the problem of complexity and irreducible complexity. What’s interesting is that Tallon – a scientist – shows some knowledge of science yet when he departs from his narrow area of expertise he begins to drift from the path of rationality. He articulates an argument from design dressed up as original yet these arguments have been dismantled by philosophers, predominantly during the Enlightenment.

Arguments from design were perhaps exposed the most by David Hume’s 1779 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The final knife blows to design arguments came in 1859 when Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace published On The Origin Of Species, which showed that there is indeed a designer –  a bottom-up one called natural selection.

Here are a couple of points to consider that Tallon rejects:

  • Evolution and cosmology succeed where God arguments fail because they posit mechanisms for the creation of living things and celestial objects from simpler beginnings via detectable and verifiable natural laws.
  • Theistic arguments for the origin of complexity state outright that it could only happen by magic. However, the universe under ordinary operation conditions has been shown to be sufficient to produce the complexity we see around us.
  • Design arguments are phenomenally problematic, yet Tallon trots on with his design thesis seemingly oblivious to the logical fallacies he is committing. As physicist Victor Stenger says, after years of investigation into what shapes the universe and everything in it one can comprehensibly conclude that: “Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God” – God the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.
  • “Intelligent design” is a subjective assessment that comes natural to human beings. We infer purpose and design in nature because we ourselves are purposeful agents. Much like the ancients imposed shapes and patterns on the night sky (constellations), we have an innate tendency to impose our meanings and patterns on the world around us.
  • Science, on the other hand, is not subjective. In science, we allow the evidence from nature to create the story and plot line. The evidence shows we emerged from nature along with all living things.
  • Complexity is a feature of non-design, i.e. blind processes working according to natural laws. Natural processes create complexity because forces have no pre-determined direction. Optimisation and simplicity are features of design.

Tallon doesn’t seem to think science offers sufficient explanation for complexity and ignores the problems with the design hypothesis. After pointing out some examples of great complexity Tallon’s conclusion is that an intelligence (God) must exist for order to emerge from chaos. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of science and what we know, despite his claim that “given what we know, the idea we are here by chance is extremely unlikely”.

The problems Tallon glosses over are thus:

  1. Explaining complexity by an unknown (greater) complexity is illogical. Claiming “God did it” is saying: “This mystery is best explained by this other mystery that we can never understand or prove exists”. Positing anything outside nature merely expands the problem because then the claimant must justify where that “extra” comes from. Ultimately, the theist cannot do this.
  2. Therefore, arguments for the existence of a god or gods fail from the outset because they increase the problem that said god(s) are designed to explain. Invoking the supernatural (something we are incapable of knowing exists) adds complexity to the complex problem we are trying to explain.

As Richard Dawkins put it recently at an event here in New Zealand – to explain that the necessary conditions of life were created by God was not satisfactory, as such a God would have to be “at least as complicated and at least as implausible” as such conditions themselves.

“As appalling as that might be … it doesn’t cut the mustard because it [the God did it argument] assumes what it sets out to explain.”

If we ignore the philosophical problems with a god hypothesis as stated above (and as Tallon has) the best we can arrive at is a deistic god that set the wheels in motion and then departed the scene. Of course Tallon doesn’t leave it at that, he thinks this is justification for belief in Christianity – a huge and unjustified leap from a bad logical argument.

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God: An Old Argument Between Friends

“There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” These words, plastered over buses around the world, are not offensive to me but they seem to be for a good many people. So offensive that NZ Bus refuses to post them on their buses in major centres.

My quick take on this is that there seems to be a stupendous double standard – religious advertising is fine but an atheistic message is somehow “too shocking”. Perhaps non-believers should protest that, as people who are unconvinced by the claims of religion, they too are also offended at being censored. NZ Bus officials appear to have capitulated because a few loud believers don’t like their beliefs being challenged. (*Even if the quantity of people offended by the atheistic slogan is 99% then so be it – in a free society that is not grounds for censorship).

It is clear that the cognitive dissonance caused by an atheistic message is too great for some to contemplate. Those who complained about the bus campaign are seemingly unwilling to submit their beliefs to criticism. I argue that is why this campaign is necessary – thinking about your beliefs and why you believe them is not a bad thing (though the whole notion of “think for yourself” is a threat to the power religious authorities wield and hence frowned upon). If we are to take ideas seriously in this world, we must submit them to criticism. Granting them a free pass is both dangerous (some ideas have genuinely terrible consequences) and a little condescending.

In a free society, you should be able to say whatever you like – the price of admission to the public square is allowing ideas to be criticised. Good ideas will survive ethical, philosophical and empirical challenges. Isn’t this what the enlightenment taught us? It seems any civilised society allows no ideas to enjoy special protection (which is why communist political ideologies and theocratic and totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia and Iran will always leave the door open for authorities to abuse the human rights of others).

In the next few posts, I will examine the phrase “There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life,” and look specifically at an Jeff Tallon’s apologetic arguments against this phrase. His opinion pieces featured unchallenged in the NZ Herald around Christmas 2009. I will discuss the flaws of reasoning he employed to reach the extraordinary claim that there is a God, though we have no evidence of such a being.