We are alone in the universe (part 2)

You are probably wondering what evidence one could possibly be brought to the table that would suggest that we are alone. If you are wondering this, you are in the right place. Get ready to rumble.

From part 1 we learned that the Principle of Mediocrity suggests that the frequency of complex earth-like life is an indicator for the frequency of intelligent life regardless of how exotic extraterrestrial life ends up being. This is because humans are much more likely to be an easy way to evolve intelligent life rather than a difficult way. We are not special like a snowflake; we are mediocre. But, that’s OK. Actually, that’s a good thing for this analysis.

The central question now is: what do we think is the frequency of complex earth-like life? The general feeling of space enthusiasts is that our universe teeming with microbes and with intelligent civilizations popping up a few times per galaxy or so. Feelings and guesses are fine and dandy, but there is a more reasoned approach that has concluded that earth-like complex life is incredibly rare. This is the Rare Earth Hypothesis. The analysis goes like this: we can see to produce complex life and intelligent life on Earth, several factors were important including:

  1. Galactic habitable zone – not too close to the central black holes which emit gamma radiation, not too dense region of stars which poses danger of supernova and gravitational perturbations
  2. Favorable star – must have adequate lifespan for evolution
  3. Planet in Goldilocks zone – allows for liquid water
  4. Good Jupiter – protects from asteroid impacts (Bad Jupiter refers to a gas giant in a closer orbit to the sun than the earth and would cause detrimental gravitation perturbations)
  5. Stable orbit – for climate stability
  6. Planet composition – need solid surface in addition to oceans of water
  7. Plate tectonics – for carbon cycling and greenhouse effect
  8. Magnetosphere – protects from harmful radiation
  9. Billions of years of stable climate – don’t freeze or have runaway greenhouse effect, just look at Mars and Venus to see what could have happened to Earth
  10. Abiogenesis (or panspermia?)
  11. Abiogenesis occurs early in planetary life
  12. Not too many mass extinctions
  13. Other factors

Any individual factor is not likely rare in itself (except the factors which must stay true over long time periods). For example, we know extrasolar planets are not rare. Statistically every star has at least one planet. Also, planets in the Goldilocks zone are not rare. According to Kepler Space Telescope data around 20% of stars have rocky planets in the Goldilocks zone.

The lesson we learn here is that it’s not that individual factors are rare, it’s that the combination of factors is rare. It’s like rolling a cosmic dice over and over and having to get the right combination of numbers by chance. Chance and coincidence are at work here. There are 12 factors listed above, but how many factors are there really? There could be far more, but we don’t know for sure. Furthermore, we don’t know the frequency of each of these factors yet.

Let’s perform some calculations to get a feel for how chance will affect the frequency of complex earth-like life. Looking out at the observable universe there are about 100 billion galaxies each with about 100 billion stars. That means there are 10^22 stars in the observable universe! Now, let’s make some assumptions for the sake of analysis. Let’s assume there is one planet per star. Let’s further assume there are 22 individual planetary factors (like the 12 listed above) necessary for complex life and each factor has a 10% chance of occurring. How many planets will harbor complex earth-like life? With these assumptions, only one single planet in the whole observable universe will! What if we increase the average frequencies of the factors to 20%? There will be just over 4 million planets with complex earth-like life which is far less than one per galaxy. What if we increase the number of planetary factors to 400, what would the average frequency need to be for just 2 planets with intelligent life? About 88%. Doing these calculations is constrained by our starting assumptions, but this exercise is helpful because it shows us how the universal lottery may require substantial luck just for a few planets in the observable universe with complex earth-like life.

The thing that pushed me over the edge in this discussion is the factors which must remain true over very long time periods. Complex life is very fragile and that is evidenced by the extinction of so many species. How many dinosaurs have you seen today? If you go to the Creation Museum then Adam and Eve walked alongside dinosaurs, but the fossil record completely fails to support this. The dinosaurs were wiped out during a mass extinction event around 65 million years ago partly caused by a 10 km diameter asteroid slamming into the Earth causing severe climate change. About 50,000 years ago there occurred a similar event called the Toba catastrophe theory which nearly wiped out all of humanity. It is thought that the human population was reduced to around 6,000-10,000 individuals! How lucky are we to have persisted? These kinds of extinction events are common in the fossil record, and even more interesting may help accelerate evolution by opening up niches. Evolving complex life may require a delicate balance of extinction and speciation. But, how often does a delicate balance happen by chance in the universe?

Astrobiologist, David Waltham thinks that the most lucky feature of our planet is its 4 billion years of climate stability. Think about our neighboring planets who probably started out with compositions similar to that of Earth. Due to the sun’s gradual increasing solar output and a runaway greenhouse effect, the surface of Venus is more than 400 C, far too hot for earthly life of any sort. Even extremophiles would find this to be hell. And, Mars once had oceans of water and possibly life, but now is a freezing desert and bombarded with lethal doses of radiation. It may have pockets of microbial life, but certainly nothing complex like on Earth. We are lucky to have enjoyed such climactic stability.

How often does abiogenesis occur? How often do earth-like planets fail to produce complex life from simply life? How often on earth-like planets does extinction events set back evolutionary progress? How often does a planet enjoy 4 billion years of climate stability? If your answer is, “Not very often” then you might be a proponent of the Rare Earth Hypothesis.

Why the problem of evil is much worse than theists tend to think

I recently went through a period of suffering and as it has eased I have undertaken a reexamination of the problem of evil. The problem of evil states an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good deity cannot coexist with evil. The preferred version of this is the evidential problem of evil which seeks to demonstrate specific evils which are so excessive that a tri-omni deity would not permit them. These are called gratuitous evils. Theists typically respond by trying to justify the tri-omni deity for permitting such evil which is called theodicy.

Many non-theists think that a prime example of gratuitous evil is animal suffering. Not every theist is convinced that it is actually a problem. I disagree and find this to be a serious problem for the theist. As for those who are doubtful of animal suffering, I think there is a strong moral objection to this view. Even if we did not have strong evidence for animal capacity to suffer, we should err on assuming they can because the moral stakes are so high. Indeed, our societies have criminalized animal cruelty and regulate food industry practices, and this in consistent with the assumption that animals can suffer.

The problem of animal suffering is magnified by biological evolution which, through predation and the starvation and death of unfit organisms, has produced an enormous amount of animal suffering. The sheer volume is only the start. Biological evolution is a process that produced our beautiful and complex biosphere in addition to billions of years of animal suffering – it is both good and evil. This presents a new challenge to the theist that may not be obvious at first glance. Let me elaborate. Biological evolution is a purely natural process (in theory), therefore it is governed by the natural laws that have operated since the beginning. Biological evolution is also morally good and evil, so how could it have been created by a tri-omni deity? At this point the theist could posit moral dualism by saying that the universe was created by both good and evil forces, but this goes against Christian theology. In Christian theology God created all of existence which had to include the natural laws, but the natural laws encode a vast amount of animal suffering.

The only theist I could find that has grappled with this particular aspect of the Darwinian problem of evil was stumped. So was I when I came across it while thinking one day. It was one of those problems that replayed over and over again in frustration because I could not even make up a single potential solution without either rewriting Christian theology or entirely reframing the problem of evil.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to go somewhere I didn’t think I would. I’m going to agree with a major part of the analysis. Yes, God did create everything in existence including biological evolution and animal suffering. Even more horror awaits. Science indicates that all life on earth will be extinct in the future. Within 500 million years, if we don’t destroy the planet with climate change or war, the sun will expand into a red giant which will boil off the oceans and kill all remaining life. If we manage to escape this fate by going interstellar, dark energy will dilute all of matter and energy to nothing in an event called the Big Freeze. The universe has already sealed our fate. Even transhumans cannot escape death. What am I getting at? Both suffering and death were built into this universe intentionally by God.

Should that be a surprise though? Paul said, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. . .” (Romans 8:20-22). Paul is referring to God cursing the creation at the beginning which was an essential idea in the Hebrew creation myth. The important question is whether or not a curse of this sort fits with a tri-omni deity. A tri-omni deity is perfectly just, so the curse could be an execution of justice. But, who committed the crime? Out of the options, the one that makes the most sense to me is that the whole of humanity is responsible. Not just a snapshot of humanity, certainly not Adam and Eve. From the time Homo sapiens was endowed with intelligence and moral agency until our final demise, we are the ones who justify a universal curse, we are all Adam and Eve. This idea is called the “retroactive fall of man” theodicy.

Remember the title of this post though. Of course for me to adopt this theodicy is in some sense an intellectualization. So now I am going to freely unleash criticism on it. It seems grossly unfair. The collective sin of one species justifies a universal curse? Why do all the species have to suffer? Why do our children have to suffer? We are still left with unfair suffering, but this is not a new problem. Scripture talks about this in the book of Job. Job was righteous yet God allowed him to lose everything and suffer greatly. At the end of the story God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, and amazingly no theodicy is offered. In fact, it seems to be the opposite, an anti-theodicy: to say that we cannot understand all of God’s reasons. So, while the fall of man provides a degree of satisfaction, we are faced with an anti-theodicy to balance our egos.

The worst part of the problem of evil is that it is an inquiry into the unknown, an abstract undertaking. We are down here living in the world facing suffering that is concrete. In my time of suffering, I protested life and my life itself became a protest. Intellectualization lost its power because suffering is actually suffering, and I almost lost everything. Some of us will be dragged through the darkness and may not make it. And, this is a monumental concern and to be lamented. Returning to the intellectual aspect, the problem of evil seems to be a stalemate precisely because our resources are limited in analyzing God’s moral character. I’m talking about both the resources of evidence and thought. We are in a position, just as Abraham was, to either trust in God’s moral character or not. But, we are advantaged because the love of God has been revealed to us in Jesus who himself would freely take on unfair suffering and death to save us. Though we are advantaged, we are still in the position of having to decide whether we should trust in God’s moral character.

As for the animals, I see no reason why their lives will not be redeemed. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox. . .” (Isaiah 65). But, future justice, even though promised to be perfect, may fail to provide satisfaction in the present. That is why it’s my prayer that we face our struggles and demons with hope, and for Christians this ultimately means hope and faith in the Creator.

Presuppositional Apologetics: Science, Theology, and Exegesis

I recently watched a debate between a presuppositional apologist and an atheist and decided to make a blog post about this discussion, but I am presupposing that the reader is already familiar with the discussion to some extent. If you are atheist, you might be tempted to forgo reading this blog post, but I hope you will stick around and wrestle with its content especially what is at the end.

What I want to do is analyze the presuppositional position from three perspectives: exegetical, theological, and scientific. Let’s start by analyzing the central claim of presuppositional apologetics that scripture states all people know that God exists. Here is the commonly cited passage for review:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse. . .” (Romans 1:18-20a, NRSV)

Is Paul really saying that someone born into an atheist culture (perhaps a post-Christian European country) would start with innate knowledge of God and then need to suppress this to as a rite of passage into their atheist culture? Before jumping to this conclusion we should read the passage in more context. It becomes obvious that Paul is talking about people who “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (verse 23). In other words, Paul is talking about the pagans. Paul is explaining to his readers why the pagan religions exist and their origins from the beginning of civilization. And, Paul is not even addressing individuals but rather the entire culture.

Further, do we find Paul adopting a particular apologetic approach like evidentialism or presuppositionalism? We can look at how Paul approached the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens. Did Paul say, “You already know that God exists and you must be suppressing this knowledge”? NO! Paul says that God is the creator of all things and “he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, NRSV). Is Paul presenting an argument in such a way that it only appeals to evidence? Or, is Paul telling them that they already know God exists? No and no. Paul was neither an evidentialist nor a presuppositionalist.

So, going back to Romans 1, why would someone extrapolate from pagans to modern cultures and from culture to individual? I have an idea. Here is a telling quote from a well-known presuppositional apologist:

“Would it not follow logically if the person did not know that God exists, had no concept of God, and stood before him and God says, ‘I am going to send you to hell for not believing in me.’ . . . that would not make sense.”

-Sye Ten Bruggencate on Dogma Debate radio show

It is clear from this quote that a major reason for adopting presuppositionalism is because it makes God fair. In this scheme everyone is equal because we start out with innate knowledge of God. It’s as if there is a theological problem of God’s fairness and presuppositionalism is the solution.

From my perspective the reason that God’s judgment is perfectly fair is NOT because we all start off with innate knowledge of God, rather it’s because God is omniscient and knows what to expect of each one of us no matter what our circumstances are on earth. Indeed, our circumstances are radically different from person to person and culture to culture, and this is no accident. Then, how will the atheist be judged? By their actions and their conscience (i.e., see Romans 2:6-16). If God calls an atheist to convert, then specifically rejecting this call is grounds for condemnation. But, it will not be arbitrary. The point here is that we don’t need innate knowledge of God for God to be fair.

Alright, you have waited patiently with bated breath for the scientific analysis. The answer is quite simple. We do not naturally believe in specific gods. We do have a propensity to believe in god(s), but these must be refined by culture. Here is a video which explains this and takes it a little further:

I think the apostle Paul would be agreeable to this. The human brain has the capacity and propensity to believe in gods, but this is refined through outside information, namely revelation, which leads to Christian theism, the belief in the one true God who created all things and will make them new.

How I became an Atheist – part 2

At the end of part 1 things weren’t too bad. I was probably around 17 years old and was mostly just becoming angry at church feeling like it was anti-intellectual regarding Deep Time and evolution. But, something inside me also wanted me to show them. I thought if only I could show them (i.e., as Bill Nye did in a debate this year), then they would understand.

The remainder of my high school days I went from church to church. But, the religion thing had little to do with it. The main reason me and my best friend would go was for sociality and meeting girls. Of course taking communion made me feel absolved, but I think I barely listened to a single word blasting out of the pulpit. My thinking was if these teachers can’t get something as simple as Big Time, how can they possibly provide an adequate interpretation of a 2000 year old text that was not written to modern people?

Then, came university. I approached church the exact same way. I was just there to say “Sup, yall” and meet hot chicks and take communion to make myself right with God. It’s the developing skeptic’s triad of church activities.

Then, I met my future wife. She had an eyebrow ring, tattoos on her feet, and was into traveling. I had long dirty hair, looked like a grunge rock star, and had a mysterious personality. Match made in heaven, I know. But, remember in my triad, one of the factors that kept me going to church was to meet girls. Once we got married after university, I lost a major reason to go to church.

After university my first job was in basic science, specifically the study of protein structure-function relationship. As I got more and more into the scientific literature I actually became addicted to science. I would work so many hours making hypotheses, performing experiments, and read every article I could find relevant to my field. This is when I really developed an appreciation for scientific method and skepticism. One of my first projects was to verify work from a Japanese group of scientists. It’s nothing against their credibility, rather this is how science works. If you publish something, be prepared to have it scrutinized and possibly even retested if it’s important enough to another research group.

This is when skipping church actually became just not going at all. Sundays were for sleeping in.

Fast forward about one year. I was skating by the beach with an atheist friend when he asked me a question that hit like a baseball bat to the head, “How can God send people to hell for an infinite period of time for committing finite crimes?” It didn’t matter that I could argue against this notion of hell, what this question did was send me on a journey to figure if this whole religion had any truth whatsoever.

I dove into the debate headfirst and made a commitment to seek out anything, I would not hide my eyes from anything anyone was saying about God and religion. This is exactly what I did! I really liked Hitchens and Harris, they were particularly eloquent, even able to criticize atheism which to me gave them credibility. These are some of the things that I concluded:

(1) Every single argument for God’s existence can be refuted.
(2) The whole Christian narrative of God saving the world 250,000 years after humans evolved is absurd.
(3) The idea of Jesus absorbing God’s wrath is absurd.
(4) The Mosaic Law and the Canaanite genocide are immoral.
(5) The bible is misogynistic through and through.
(6) There is no evidence for a worldwide flood.
(7) Organized religion is tyrannical and people that fall into it simply have not studied science and reason or have not taken it seriously enough.
(8) I see no evidence for an all-good God in a world plagued with pain and suffering, particularly the innocents, the infants and children.

Needless to say, I quickly graduated to agnosticism.

I need to admit something. I never “came out” as an agnostic or atheist to my family or even my wife. I feared the consequence, but I have a feeling they suspected it after all the heated discussions. I recently asked my wife what she thought all those years and she said she basically knew it the whole time. She’s smart. 🙂

How I became an Atheist

Although I have been doing philosophical blogging as of late, I thought I would interject a personal story. Sometimes, perhaps often, a person is easier to appreciate than an idea.

This is part 1.

My journey to atheism began as a child. I grew up in the northern Texas which is renowned for its religiosity. We had a church on every street corner and every denomination (or non-denomination) from A to Z was listed in the phone book.

My family for at least two generations had been committed Christians. My grandfather was a benevolence minister; he literally had a job finding poor families and taking them groceries and supplies. I love and miss him dearly. My parents were fundamentalist Christians. They belonged to a denomination that believed they were right, so naturally everyone else was wrong. In addition to black and white thinking and their sense of doctrinal superiority, they held to a strict literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis.

This is where it all began. As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. (Velociraptor was my favorite. The dinosaur skeleton shown above is a Velociraptor 😀 ). But I wondered, why are dinosaurs not in the bible? After all, the bible was supposed to contain all of world history since the creation. It vexed my poor little brain. Somehow I learned that dinosaurs might have been mentioned in the book of Job chapter 41 as the Leviathan. This was wonderful news to my ears, I had my answer: dinosaurs were in the bible! They must have gone extinct within biblical times.

Fast forward about five or so years to a thing called Youth Group, a sort of mini-church meeting for teenagers. There we were taught that evolution was evil and completely false. Also, I remember at a large church service (>1000 people) the preacher argued that evolution was statistically as impossible as a monkey randomly typing a Shakespeare sonnet. They successfully convinced me that evolution was untenable and that the bible was right all along.

As I was developing my beliefs at this particular church, the overall experience was fraught with negativity. There was excessive petty infighting and a good dose of hypocrisy that even a kid could see. [Insert examples here]. I thought maybe this is not God’s fault, but this reasoning did not make it easier to continue going to church.

Even though I was a Christian one of my best friends in high school was an atheist. We would play chess, video games, debate, play guitar, and create untold mischief. What was interesting is that we had such different beliefs and different consciences, yet we had a strong friendship. I actually had trouble making Christian friends. Most of my real friends seemed religiously ambivalent. I find it a great irony that God would make me such a conscientious Christian teenager yet only fit in with the ambivalent and the atheist. It didn’t seem ironical at the time, it was frustrating to feel like an outsider. Was this teen angst or did it source from a deeper religious frustration? Maybe a little of both.

One day I bought a book about science and religion, my first real exposure to the subject. I had to read it slowly because it was so dense, but I devoured that book like a Velociraptor (had to get that one in). The book was sympathetic to evolution. When I could see the evidence for evolution clearly laid out before me and how the creation story does not have to be read with literal days in mind, my world was suddenly turned upside down. Cognitive dissonance, a very uncomfortable state, ensued. When the calamity began to settle, I decided I could no longer reject evolution. I did not know what to do with religion anymore. . . I would have to try to make evolution and religion work together. . .

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Do you have a similar experience? Do you know someone with a similar experience? Feel free to comment or question about anything.