Have Your Giraffe and Eat it Too
In Part I of this two part post devoted to my good friend Josh Petty I promised that I would revisit an argument that we had recently on Instagram. For better or worse, here is Part II.
As I was putting my notes together for this blog entry, reviewing the copious comments sent back and forth between Josh Petty and me, I came to realize that the chasm between our different perspectives – with me, the Skeptic on one side and Josh, the believer on the other – was so vast and so profound that any argument spawned from that chasm was doomed ultimately to be meaningless.
Josh and I do not experience the world in the same way. Our experiences and our desires are so different that when we communicate, we are not even speaking the same language. Even when we appear to be using the same words, we are NOT, in fact, saying the same thing.
Throughout our correspondence – which took place entirely in a comments section on Instagram (WTF!) – we spent a lot of time lobbing “big” questions back and forth: Is there evidence for a grand designer? What room is there for god in the cosmos? How can life spring from non-life? Where did everything come from?
They were all interesting questions and they felt really important when talking about them, but they were smokescreens, obscuring the true source of our dissonance.
Josh’s faith is meaningful to him, perhaps the most meaningful thing in his life. It ties him to his family and to his community and it gives him purpose. His life is enriched by his faith.
Josh doesn’t need evidence to support his faith. In fact, the very definition of faith is to accept something, or to believe in something regardless of the evidence (and sometimes in spite of it). There is something noble about the idea of having such conviction in a belief that nothing can shake you from it.
From Josh’s perspective evidence is not the most important thing in the world. His beliefs are not derived from evidence, so he can take it or leave it. Josh’s worldview begins with his belief, in this case an unwavering belief in god, and then everything else falls into line from there. For Josh evidence is only useful insofar as it supports his beliefs, but it is not essential to his beliefs.
Compare this to my perspective where evidence is THE most important thing. I am only interested in conclusions derived from evidence. For me the position is far less interesting than the process. In fact, this is why I feel much more comfortable identifying as a Skeptic than an atheist. Atheism marks a position, that god does not exist, Skepticism represents a process. It is not important to me that god doesn’t exist – this is not something that I root for – my atheism is merely a consequence of following the evidence (or lack thereof) wherever it may lead. Skepticism is a process not a position.
Josh’s Christianity is a position. Josh cares immensely about his position. Evidence is incidental.
My Skepticism is a process. I care about the process. The conclusions are incidental.
Josh and I were having dinner in Huntington Beach and Josh brought up the extraordinary case of the giraffe’s neck. Josh marveled at how hard the giraffe’s heart has to work to pump blood all the way up its remarkable neck. He found it astonishing that when the giraffe lowers its head to the ground to drink water its head does not explode from the rush of blood.
The giraffe does not die, it turns out, because its jugular veins contain several valves that prevent the blood from flowing back into its head. To Josh this was evidence of a designer. It was too unlikely, Josh surmised, for all of these different things – the long neck, the giant heart, the jugular valves – to have evolved at the same time and in precisely the right way and yet – and this was meant to be Josh's coup de grâce – the giraffe could not have survived unless all of these features were present!
Josh’s story of the giraffe’s neck is a familiar trope of Christian apologists. Of course there is nothing about the giraffe’s neck that is incompatible with evolution. The valves in the giraffe’s neck that prevent the backflow to the brain are found in all mammals and even dramatic adaptations, like the giraffe’s extraordinarily long neck (and a stronger heart to go along with it), are easily understood in terms of many smaller incremental changes that occur over a long period of time.
But the evidence wasn’t really the point. And this is what I finally realized after rereading all of the messages back and forth between Josh and me. The evidence was immaterial. No amount of evidence was going to change Josh's mind. After all, it wasn’t evidence that had made his mind up in the first place. Josh and I may have quibbled over details, but the details were completely superfluous. Our discord was never really over any particular line of evidence – it ran much deeper than that – the true source of our dissonance stemmed from the very meaning of evidence itself. There was a fundamental, irreconcilable rift in the way we each conceived of evidence and the way we valued it (or not).
Facts are only as reliable as the foundation of evidence upon which they are built. The absolute best tools that we have for gathering meaningful, reliable evidence come from science. Despite the near endless list of astonishing achievements, there are still many people who just do not appreciate the methods of science.
We happen to live in such an advanced and specialized time that it is possible to benefit from science without understanding the first thing about it. There is so much that we are able to mindlessly consume. Everything arrives pretested, prepackaged and fully operational. In fact, typically, the less we know about how something works, or the less we are aware of it working, the more we like it.
When I flip on a light switch I expect the light to turn on, I don’t have to think about the filaments or the photons. When I press the power button on the TV remote I just want to see Jimmy Fallon, I don’t need to consider the cathode rays or the infrared light. When I enter “tim tebow shirtless” into a search engine I just want a bunch of topless results to fill up my browser window, I don’t care how they get there.
Science works whether we believe in it (or understand it) or not and we all benefit. Comprehension is not a prerequisite to participation in all of the amazing things that science provides. As a result people are free to believe whatever the fuck they want without any consequence (as long as there is someone else out there actually doing the good science that we all benefit from). Josh can warp reality to match his beliefs to his content. He can distort, misrepresent or completely disregard the facts when they are inconvenient and he can still step onto an airplane and fly back to Virginia, use his iPhone to text photos of his new penis tattoo to Brandon Campbell or listen to “Riders on the Storm” on satellite radio while driving around topless in his electric car (I don’t honestly think Josh drives an electric car).
Evidence does not mean the same thing to Josh that it means to me. Evidence does not mean the same thing to Josh that it means in the real world. Josh invokes evidence whenever he thinks it is useful as a rhetorical device, as in his example of the giraffe's neck, but otherwise he can take it or leave it, as in all of the other evidence for evolution.
Josh participates in and benefits from a technological age that is made possible through the principles and advancements of science and yet has no compunction about dismissing or misrepresenting solid evidence to comport with his personal beliefs.
I have no issues with Josh’s beliefs. They are his own and they are personal and they clearly add value to his life. I only start to bristle when Josh strays into the domain of science, where evidence matters, and starts trying to distort the facts to accommodate his religious views.
If Josh could resist the temptation to force the square peg of reality through the round hole of his religious views there wouldn't be an issue, but he can't help himself. Josh wants to believe crazy impossible shit AND he wants to have the science to prove it.
Josh wants to to have his giraffe and eat it too.
Unfortunately for Josh, giraffes and cakes are "created" by very different processes, but we will get to that...
What follows is the entire pointless correspondence that took place between Josh and me on Instagram. I am including it, with major reservations, mostly because I already promised it in my last post. It is my hope that my preamble will have dissuaded you from pressing on, but in the event that you must continue I wish you luck and hope that your expectations have been adequately dampened.
I’ve broken the correspondence and rearranged it into two essays, essentially, with Josh’s first and then mine, as a response, second.
Josh Petty's Argument
Religion was a main part in the lives of most Americans until the 60s. Humans have believed in a higher power since our beginning and now all the sudden it's out of style and archaic. Even Einstein believed in the necessity of a creator.
The fact of the matter is that matter does not create itself no matter how much time you give it. If I showed you a cake and said this cake came into existence all on its own you would say that was impossible. If I then told you that it started off as a single cell that formed on its own you would say that also was not possible. If I tried explaining it by saying it happened over millions of years with small changes here and there and that it evolved slowly that would not make it any more possible.
So, if something as simple as a cake cannot create itself why do we think that something that is immensely more complicated, like a human or a solar system, can form on its own without the aid of a creator?
The bottom line is I don't believe things create themselves, no matter how long you give them to do it. I believe in science insofar as it explains processes and explains how a creator could make something, but I don't believe it happens on its own any more than when I see an iPhone do I think it formed on its own or when I read a book do I think that it wrote itself.
When we see things in life we always assume that something made it except for life itself and the world we live in. Those things we think just appeared. It just isn't logical to me. No offense really, we all have our beliefs. Some put their faith in a creator with science as an explanation of the process some put their faith in science on its own.
I respect people’s faith in science, for sure. I think science is great and the truth is I just believe that it didn't happen unaided. I believe in aided evolution and understand that a god is a hard pill to swallow. I just get offended when people act like anyone who believes in a creator is an idiot.
No one knows how the world got here for sure and believing it was created is no more ridiculous than believing that it created itself from absolute zero. Just comprehending the first instances of existence before the solar system came to be, absolute zero, is mind blowing. What does absolute zero look like? How does an infinite solar system come to be? How big of an expanse is needed to start it? An infinite expanse completely void of life, where did it come from?
Because if one believes in evolution on its own then it would all have to evolve from one instance. One reaction. Where did the components for that one reaction come from? How did they come to be? What force set them in motion and what started that force or movement? These are huge questions. It's all very interesting to me. It's a miracle aided or not.
I am not necessarily arguing for Christianity, though that is my belief, but rather I am arguing for the possibility that the solar system is a result of a creator rather than a result of chance and coincidence. I believe it's far too complex to have happened on its own. For instance, where did the gasses come from? I am sure science can explain what happened but where did the elements come from?
Science explains processes and how things happen. Science can explain how a plane flies, but when I am in a plane flying I know someone made it. Truth is no one has been able to explain how life began on Earth and how organic matter formed from a non-organic Earth. I believe some scientists say that proteins came together to form the first single celled organisms. What they cannot show, however, is how proteins were able to form without the presence of DNA. And if those proteins did form because of the presence of DNA where did the DNA come from?
Arlo, I really would be interested in hearing your explanation of how a solar system creates itself and then how organic life grows from a lifeless earth. You are an intelligent man and a fan of science I am sure you could open my eyes. I just want to know how it's done. Not how it couldn't be a creator or how ridiculous you believe Christianity to be but how it was done scientifically. I have honestly put a lot of thought into this, believe it or not, and have come to the conclusion that it's not possible. I do not want to look ignorant about science as you said so show me how you think it to be.
Arlo's Response to Josh
Okay, Josh. You have expressed an interest in science; you claim to be interested in hearing what science has to say about some of these intractable questions that you are struggling with. I am NOT a scientist, but as you mentioned, I do care very much about Skepticism and science and so I will attempt to pass along what I can, to the best of my abilities. I ABSOLUTELY encourage you to follow up and really look into these questions and look for answers from actual experts who can explain things MUCH better than I could ever hope to.
I know you claimed, as a former atheist, to know my position better than I know it myself and you keep imploring me to do my research, implying, I suppose, that YOU have done your research. So, let’s start off by clearing up some basic facts.
You keep referring to the “solar system” and asking things like, “how [does a] a solar system create itself” and “why do we think that something that is immensely more complicated like … a solar system … can form on its own without the aid of a creator?” It sounds like what you are trying to refer to is our universe and NOT our solar system. Our solar system, you will remember, merely refers to our star, the Sun, and the planets and bodies that orbit it. The creation of our solar system is quite well understood and has been for hundreds of years (you can look up the Nebular Hypothesis which was first proposed in 1734!! by Emanuel Swedenborg).
Just to put things in perspective here for a moment, our Sun and our solar system are located in the Milky Way, which is a galaxy (OUR galaxy!) that contains up to 400 BILLION STARS. Please take a moment to really let that sink in -- OUR SUN IS ONE OF 400 BILLION STARS! Have you ever looked up and marveled at the number of stars in the night sky? Do you know how many stars you can see at any given moment when you look up? The top-end is somewhere around 2,000. ALL of those stars that we can see, if you added up every single one, would never total more than about 2,000. Now compare that to 400 BILLION! You would have to multiply the number of stars visible in the night sky by 200 MILLION just to equal the number of stars in our galaxy!!
And bear in mind that most of those stars represent another star system, so there is likely in excess (way, way in excess!) of over 400 billion planets in our galaxy. These are mind-bending numbers, which are impossible for us to comprehend, but when it comes to contemplating the size of our universe we still haven’t even begun to scratch the surface!
Remember, 400 billion stars was the number of stars IN OUR galaxy, just ONE galaxy! Guess how many galaxies are estimated to exist in our universe? Well over 100 BILLION!! These numbers are completely RIDICULOUS!! And if your mind has not been sufficiently blown by this point, consider this, it is very likely to turn out that our universe, which contains hundreds of billions of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, is very likely just one of hundreds of billions of universes!!
In this context alone, you might see how a “vengeful god” getting worked up over the goings on of just one of the millions of species on Earth, which is just one of the hundreds of TRILLIONS of planets in our universe (the real estimate is actually closer to 10 to the 24th power, or a one followed by 24 zeroes!!), which is itself probably just one of a near endless number of universes, seems not just to be exceedingly unlikely, but actually comes off as completely preposterous.
The problem becomes even more untenable (if that is even possible??) when you add to the mind-boggling vastness of space the similarly mind-drubbing vastness of time.
The Earth is around 4 billion years old. Our universe is about 14 billion years old (remember, this is just ONE universe). Do you know how long humans have been around; at least in any form that could reasonably be compared to clever, innovative humans as you know them today? Less than 50,000 years. And it has only been about 10,000 years since the dawning of human civilization. Do you know what 14 billion years minus 10,000 years is? IT IS STILL ABOUT 14 BILLION FUCKING YEARS!!
Our entire existence, considered from this vantage, measured against the sheer immensity of time and space, is completely negligible. In the context of the entire universe (or better yet, ALL of the universes) and ALL of time our existence is completely indistinguishable from nonexistence.
If there is a god, then he or she has spent all of existence, over 14 billion years, and occupied all of creation, including trillions upon trillions of stars and planets, WITHOUT humans (for all intents and purposes).
For over 14 billion years, and likely for much, much longer than that if you allow for ALL of the universes, your god was alone and completely dormant; and then sometime less than 4,000 years ago the Christian/Judeo god, the god of Abraham, the god you worship, suddenly leapt into action and immediately became VERY concerned with seemingly arbitrary things like the “edges” of men’s beards, "You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19:13) and women speaking in church “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak… it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) and all kinds of insane details about human life.
This may sound completely reasonable and plausible to YOU. But surely you can see how to someone else, to someone on the outside, not indoctrinated into your way of thinking, to someone rational and curious, with a genuine appetite for discovery and understanding, surely you can see how to someone like that your notion of god might come off as somewhat underwhelming and unsatisfying (if not completely bewildering).
Contrary to your assertion, accepting the fact of evolution is NOT the same thing as having faith in god. I do NOT have to have faith in evolution the same way you have faith in god. Your faith in god ONLY exists if you believe in it. There is NO evidence outside of your belief that can confirm your belief in god. This is precisely the definition of faith, the ability to believe in something without evidence, or even in spite of conflicting evidence.
Science is the opposite of faith. You do NOT have to have “faith” in science for its discoveries to be (provisionally) true; you simply must have evidence. Evidence matters in science. The theory of evolution is one of the most robust, well established theories in all of science, on a par with germ theory and the theory of gravity. The fact that life has changed and diversified on Earth over a period of some 2-3 billion years and the fact that all species are related through common descent and have been affected by pressures from natural selection has been well established by mountains of evidence, from many different, independent fields of science including (but not limited to): anthropology, biology, microbiology, genetics, paleontology, geology and astronomy. The overwhelming evidence for evolution confirms the fact of evolution whether you believe in it or not.
Furthermore, your inability to understand or fully grasp a concept, whether it be evolution or the big bang or abiogenesis or how to bake a cake, cannot be considered an argument against the theory. Just because you don’t get it doesn’t make it not true.
I am sure the experts in their respective fields who have devoted untold hours (often years and lifetimes!) to the investigation and understanding of complicated scientific concepts such as evolution and abiogenesis would be very disappointed to learn that you have already “honestly put a lot of thought into this,” and have “come to the conclusion that it's not possible.”
To be sure Josh, there are many people, much more qualified than you or me, working on these problems right now. The question of how life first arose on this planet and whether or not it came from inorganic material (abiogenesis) will eventually be answered, probably (hopefully) in our lifetimes. There are many compelling hypotheses and there are many clever experiments being conducted with promising results. This is how science works. We make guesses, we conduct experiments and make observations, we analyze data and follow the results wherever they may lead. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.
Our ability to solve problems and answer tough questions using the methods of science has produced staggering results. We know the age of the universe. We know the age of our species. We have sequenced the human genome and split the atom. We have discovered exoplanets similar to our own. We have observed stars almost as old as the universe. We have eradicated diseases, put men on the moon, and sent a satellite out of our solar system. We have solved the mystery of the diversity of life on this planet and we have rovers searching for life on other planets. And through it all, we have not once encountered any evidence for a designer.
Science is giving us answers; solid, verifiable answers at an alarming rate. Each metaphysical question that is resolved through science strikes another blow against the domain of religion. Each new scientific insight robs god of another miracle.
It is an interesting paradox, that the more we understand about just how big the universe is, the less room we find for god in it.
If the value of your god is tied to his omnipotence and his ability to accomplish great, miraculous feats then you will find no peace. If you insist on a rigid, literal understanding of god then you will continue to take each new scientific discovery as an assault on your faith.
But, if like so many millions of other people in the world, you are able to find spiritual nourishment from your religion, without demanding that it provide literal answers about metaphysical questions, then perhaps you too could reconcile the virtues of your faith with the boundless and awesome wonders of science.
I will close with a quote from Albert Einstein, since you seem to be so enamored with him. “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”