Closed-Mind is in the Eye of the Presupposer

Closed-Mind is in the Eye of the Presupposer

Reasons to Believe is a creation advocate organization that generally earns my respect, if not my agreement. But a few recent articles caught my eye as uncharacteristically disingenuous.

In Pseudoenzymes Illustrate Science’s Philosophical Commitments, author Dr. Fazale Rana attempts to demonstrate what he feels is a “blind spot” in methodological naturalism (we’ll define this next, hold on) using an example of a recent discovery about the role of previously-underestimated pseudoenzymes.

Philosophical naturalism, as a point of comparison, is an overarching philosophy that the cosmos is driven exclusively by natural laws and forces, and that there is no spiritual or supernatural realm that interacts with our physical one.

Methodological naturalism, the type criticized by Rana, is a strategy that says when studying the natural world only natural causes will be considered. Basically, when scientists attempt to learn, they agree to limit their hypotheses to natural causes and effects. This says nothing about the supernatural convictions of any given scientist, nor is it a statement about a supernatural realm. It is merely a short-cut admission that there is no currently-known scientific method to know the supernatural. Maybe the supernatural exists, but our science cannot deal with it.

The cited research postulated that previous work in the field mistakenly considered pseudoenzymes to be dead, rather than active participants in cell signaling networks. “In other words,” Fazale rephrased, “the biases created by viewing pseudoenzymes as the byproduct of evolutionary processes hindered biochemists from identifying and characterizing the functional importance of pseudoenzymes.”

Fazale concludes,

In short, in fulfilling their vital role as regulators of cell signaling pathways, pseudoenzymes display elegance, sophistication, and ingenuity. As a creationist, this is the reason I view these systems as a Creator’s handiwork. Because the field of pseudoenzyme biochemistry is so young, I anticipate the evidence for design to dramatically expand as we learn more about these surprising biomolecules.

Yet, despite everything we have learned about pseudoenzymes, adherents to the evolutionary paradigm simply can’t see these biomolecules as anything other than the product of an evolutionary history.

Because of the blind spot created by their philosophical commitments, the design of these systems is occluded from their view—and that causes them to miss the mark.

From reading this, one might justifiably assume that researchers Eyers and Murphy were strong naturalism-rejecting intelligent-design proponents, who were prompted to overcome the oppressive shackles of their short-sighted peers after a robust prayer meeting.

However, the paper Rana sighted is called The Evolving World of Pseudoenzymes. The abstract for the paper includes a section titled, “How did pseudoenzymes evolve?” Eyers and Murphy, whatever their supernatural views, are clearly methodological naturalists who made this discovery within those parameters. It was obviously not a blind spot.

Meanwhile, creationists insist that belief in a god and the authority of the bible are presuppositions. That is, they are not proven with evidence, but are simply be accepted as true before looking at the evidence.

Imagine a scenario where Yahweh god decided to completely and instantaneously heal an entire cancer ward, restoring each patient to peak physical fitness. Now imagine two scientists sent in to investigate. Scientist A’s mind is open to the supernatural, and so proclaims the event a miracle, documents it as such and goes home to sing praise songs. Now imagine Scientist B, also a Jesus-follower, but adhering to her on-the-job methodological naturalism she rigorously studies everything about the ward to find out what happened. She looks at the air, the food, the water, the cleaning chemicals, common batches of medicine, the procedures of the staff and anything else she can think of. Not content with “god did it” and calling it a day, she perseveres to find out HOW it was done, and maybe she finds it and can use the knowledge to help others. Which type of science should we encourage?

It takes little thought at all to think about scientific discoveries that were hindered by a theological world-view… the Earth orbiting the sun (Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Descartes, all punished by the church), Newtonian physics, ancient earth geology, and biological evolution… to name just a few. Modern religious opposition to science includes stem cell research and climate change science (for reasons I do not understand).

Rana points out that a commonly held view about pseudoenzymes was wrong… but it was SCIENCE that discovered this. The role of pseudoenzymes was never a presupposition, just observation to that point. Science changes when there is new evidence. It is holy books that assume a conclusion and never change.


You may also have seen this week’s National Geographic article about a feathered dinosaur tail discovered in 99-million-year-old amber. This is a particularly exciting find for those who study the evolutionary connection between theropods and birds.

Again, Dr. Rana took to the Reasons blog to respond to this discovery. He relatively fairly summarizes that “for many in the scientific community this discovery further affirms the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, with feathered dinosaurs viewed as transitional intermediates.”

But Rana is skeptical.

Paleontologists interpret feathered dinosaurs from the fossil record as transitional intermediates between theropods and birds—including the feathered dinosaur tail found in amber. Yet, each occurrence of feathered dinosaurs in the fossil record appear after the first true bird, Archaeopteryx

It is hard to imagine how the “primitive” feathers associated with the dinosaur tail (again, dated at 99 million years in age) could be transitional if they appear over 50 million years after Archaeopteryx and co-occur with feathers from a bird belonging to enantiornithes.

This was so ridiculous, I had to ask Rana himself about it.

I went to the original research article itself to see if Rana was right, but the only reference to transition is this one…

The integration of developmental studies [5, 7 and 33] and paleontology yields enriched models of morphological character evolution that help explain major evolutionary transitions in key clades such as theropods, including birds.

So, Rana wasn’t really referring to the study’s authors, but most likely the imprecise reporting by numerous outlets. But to set expectations of these derivative articles, there seems to be more words dedicated to the plausibility of Jurassic Park in real life than evolutionary ramifications.

So I call “baloney”, Dr. Rana. The researchers are not saying that this particular individual dinosaur that got its tail caught in amber is personally the ancestor of modern birds. They merely hold this up as consistent evidence that birds and theropods had a common ancestor in the past. The fact that there are individual theropods that lived after archaeopteryx is no more surprising than two cousins being alive at the same time.

(Actually, he took me aback by referring to archaeopteryx as a true bird, because it has so many reptilian traits, but I won’t chase that rabbit today.)

By Rana’s logic, the Android operating system wasn’t inspired by Apple’s iOS if there is a Samsung Galaxy 2 that predates the iPhone 7.

I know he understands the science and theory. He’s better than this. Be better than this.


social-aviYou may have noticed that it’s been a while since I updated the blog. “I’m sorry” or “you’re welcome”, depending on your perspective. 2016 has been a difficult year, and between the relentless waves of life’s arrows, I allowed myself to be distracted by some trivial pursuits including talking about comics and movies with my friend David on his YouTube channel.

As much as I enjoy writing, that experience has rekindled my love of the medium of video, and I’ve decided to take some of my thoughts and passions to YouTube in my own channel that I’m calling Paulogia. The first three videos will go public this week, and I’m a combination of proud and embarrassed, but it’s time to give birth. My intended audience is believing Christians, so perhaps you’ll join me and let me know what you think?

If you’re interested in what I might do there, I’d consider it a great favor if you would subscribe to the channel here. (YouTube shows favoritism to those with more subscribers, so a kick-start would help me out.) Alternately, you can follow Paulogia on Facebook or Twitter. (Don’t make me invite you.)

Short Story – The Beach Baby

Short Story – The Beach Baby

Long ago, about the place that would one day be New York, a journey began. The travelers did not know where they were going, but each day took a step in a direction that made them more content and more likely to continue the journey.

This journey continued, winding to and fro, for nearly 4500 km (2800 miles). None who began the journey remained, and many who joined for a time left to find their own paths better suited for them. But some particular travelers, over time uncharted, had arrived at the place that would one day be Santa Monica Beach, California.

Our travelers were weary from the difficult journey, having given everything they had to keep moving. In their final act of life, the travelers painfully extended outstretched arms 15 cm (six inches) through some bushes to gently place the last remaining members of their party into the soft sand. A newborn baby, and a puppy to watch her.

The baby awoke, her blinking eyes attempting to adjust to the sun overhead for the first time. She giggled at the tickle of the puppy’s lapping tongue on her tiny toes. The baby sat up and marveled at all she saw… the ocean extending forever before her, the warm golden sand on which she sat, and the trees that swayed overhead.

“I was made for this beach,” smiled the baby, “and this beach for me. We are new and wonderful and unlike anything that could ever be or have been.”

“Pardon me,” said the puppy, “but we are here as part of a long, long journey taken by many before us.”

The baby laughed at the foolish puppy. “Don’t be silly,” the baby said. “The beach began when I opened my eyes. There are no other places, for if there were I would certainly see them.”

The puppy tilted his head in adorable bewilderment, and shifted his gaze past the baby to the nearby edge of the beach. “Do you not see the bodies of your parents, their arms outstretched and decomposing in the sun? They brought you here.” Acknowledging the smell made the puppy’s nose wrinkle.

“Those are not my parents!” said the baby. “You have made up the idea of parents because this beach was made for me and not for you. No one has seen a birth. It is not common sense that I might come out of a dead creature. Those giants obviously appeared at the same time I did, but didn’t make it.”

Sniffing at the sand, the puppy urged the baby to turn her gaze from the ocean. “What of all these tracks in the sand?” the puppy asked. “They extend to the edge of the beach. If you look past the bush, the tracks extend as far east as my eyes can see or nose can smell.”

Crawling two steps toward the puppy, the baby scoffed. “Journeys are impossible. No one has seen a journey. The whole idea makes me laugh.”

The puppy nodded his snout toward the markings in the sand under the baby’s knees. “Just now, you shuffled forward two steps. A journey is simply that motion repeated over and over, covering incredible distances one shuffle at a time.”

The baby scowled at the obvious gibberish of the puppy. “Obviously I can crawl from one side of the beach to the other,” the baby chided. “We see crawling all the time. No one denies crawling. But there are limits. Crawling does not become a journey. Show me a journey, puppy! Show me one crawl that became a journey! I want to see it happen.”

“Journeys cover incredible distances,” pleaded the puppy. “You have existed only long enough to crawl a few strides along this beach. How do you suppose you might personally witness thousands of kilometers when you are physically limited to centimeters? We see only our portion, baby — not the beginning or the end — that is simply the nature of the journey.”

“The entirety of the universe was revealed to me when I opened my eyes,” sneered the baby. “I did not suddenly appear on this beach by accident.”

“But the diaper you wear,” said the puppy. “It is made of a cotton grown far from here. The image on your shirt depicts a cactus, a plant not found on a beach. The flower in your hair, it cannot grow near salt water. They are souvenirs your parents and grandparents left you, evidence of their journey now possessed by you.”

“These things I have do not show a journey, silly puppy,” said the baby, letting the sound of the waves down out his fanciful ideas. “Cotton and flowers and cactus may exist elsewhere, I don’t know. But they have always been here with me, just as your collar has always been on you.”

“But…”, the puppy began to object.

“Hush now, puppy,” the baby cooed, scratching her companion’s long ears. “I will hear no more of it. Let us simply enjoy this beach that was made for me.”

U2 and Me – One Life, but we’re not the same.

U2 and Me – One Life, but we’re not the same.

The piles of clothes, fast-food wrappers and lidless boxes left little room for me in the back seat of Sheldon’s two-door car. I did not know driving-age Sheldon, but he was a friend of Cory. I didn’t know Cory that well either, but he was my first connection at the new school and neighborhood to which I had moved in the summer and somehow that landed me in this slightly smelly situation. Sheldon asked for “Red Rocks” and Cory fingered through the jammed-full case of cassettes, pulling out a well-worn plastic shell of orange hue, and popping the tape into the car stereo.

“Do you like U2?” Sheldon asked me, his first direct address since the “Hey” of our introduction.

“Of course,” I replied, probably unconvincingly. I had heard of U2, but I didn’t know anything about them. I was about to learn.

The Joshua Tree came out the next year. In the time between, my album collection had added a few cassette tapes (purchased, not just my own bootleg recordings of the radio) and my exclusively contemporary Christian library (Amy Grant, David Meece, Michael W. Smith, Lisa Whelchel, Petra and the like) had been breached by Michael Jackson’s Bad.

I was fully taken with Joshua Tree, though I can’t claim that I understood all its subtleties. I got both the cassette and vinyl versions for maximum quality at home and use in my new Walkman when away. I remember my delight when it won the Grammies for best album and best group performance. I remember feeling justified in siding with long-time fans who resented all the new adherents. I remember the bands’ new penchant for dark clothing influencing my own already monochromatic trend.

It was the release of concert album and concert movie, Rattle and Hum, in 1988 that pushed me from fan to huge fan. I was suddenly into whatever U2 information and lore that one can acquire seven years before the world’s first web page. I got a fedora and a harmonica.

Part of my justification — to myself, my Christian youth leaders, and to my parents — for my fascination with this Irish band was that they were (with the exception of evil bass player, Adam) Christians. They were not worldly and corrupting like the pop-music videos banned in our household.

I could rattle off the evidence. The lyrics for their song “40” were adapted directly from Psalm 40. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is about heaven. “One man betrayed with a kiss” (Pride), “And if the mountains should crumble or disappear into the sea…” (The Unforgettable Fire, Psalm 46:2), “We eat and drink while tomorrow they die” (Sunday Bloody Sunday, 1 Cor 15:32), “I have spoken with the tongue of angels” (I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, 1 Cor 13:1), and on and on with examples of scriptural Easter eggs.

My parents were skeptical, but allowed the indulgence. Truth be told, I didn’t ever really buy in to my own argument. As a fundamentalist Christian, I always considered Bono’s brand of liberal, social-justice Christianity to be a false or lesser faith. My simplistic view on spiritual matters saw the bands’ nuance as the the kind of lukewarm faith that Revelation says will be spit out. U2 weren’t proclaiming their spiritual answers, as commanded. It was not mine to judge, but I kind of judged.

Despite that philosophical difference, I loved everything about their music –sticking with them through experimental phases of Zooropa, Pop and beyond. I went to their concerts whenever opportunity arose, more often creating the opportunities in cities like Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, San Jose, Las Vegas across decades and tours. Collecting obscure, rare and unreleased tracks and bootlegs (in a pre-file-sharing age) brought me joy as a deeper-than-average fan. Sometimes it was the message of the songs that spoke to me, sometimes just the rhythmic riffs and lilting vocals.

In the wake of my deconversion from Christianity to atheism, I find myself aligning more closely with the social worldview of lead singer Bono than I did when we shared a faith label. AIDS prevention, third-world debt relief, truth equality of the Abrahamic religions (“Jesus, Jew, Mohammed… it’s true“), same-sex marriage and gay rights, and other “left” causes… things that turned me off in a former life.

To be sure, Bono is a theist. In Michka Assayas’ book, Bono, the singer lays out his loose theology which incorporates karma, fatherhood, and friendship with more traditional Christianity tenets.

“When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s— and everybody else’s. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that’s the question. And no one can talk you into it or out of it.”

When posed with C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic or lord” trilemma, I tend to go with “(d) legend”, but that is a subject for another time. Orthodox or not, still haven’t found what he’s looking for or not, you know Bono believes it.

Like an immigrant living in a new land, I can be delighted to hear the tongue of my youth, no matter the sentiment expressed. With so much of my life invested in studying the Bible, I remain part of the inner circle who understand the pervasive scriptural in-jokes of U2’s lyrics — getting all the references, but not offended by any creative twists or heretic reworkings. It is connective tissue.

With the turmoil of the past few years of my life, the music of U2 remained part of the small unchanging core. A fixed point. Certainly, some songs have slipped from prayer to nostalgia. Others that were once merely poems are now profound reflections or surgical daggers. There are phrases in U2’s discography that grip me and tear me, and to identify examples would betray too much.

Assuming that U2’s next album will not once again be thrust unsuspectingly on my iPhone, I will continue to seek them out and hand them my money. Even if their repertoire sours in the future, U2 will always remain my answer to the “what is your favorite band?” security question.

In “All Along the Watchtower”, Bono lists his assets as “three chords and the truth”. He and I have never quite agreed on that last part, but in the first we find common ground where we can search for the middle.


This entry is in response to a reader request. If there is any topic you’d like to see me cover in the future, please let me know.

To Those Who Escaped the Maze

To Those Who Escaped the Maze

I don’t know if I could express my own emotions and feelings about my life on this side of atheism any better than this podcast host could in describing his listeners.

If you’d like to know the current me a little better, listen to the end. I guess attempt to find comfort that my story is so common.

“I know he’s given up a lot of himself to get there. I know he had to come face-to-face with a lot of demons, a lot of lies he’d been told by the people that love him and a lot of lies that he told to the people he loved. He had to simultaneously come to grips with both his culpability and his victimhood. He had to kick away pillars that had dammed back his doubts for decades and face that oncoming flood with no reward on the other side of it but knowledge.”

My Irrational Response to Irrational Science Denial

My Irrational Response to Irrational Science Denial

Despite my protestation that most theological beliefs are held with inadequate reasons, I fully support anyone who holds them. It took years of intense information pursuit to detangle myself from the indoctrination of my youth. While I wish I could provide an escape shortcut for some believers, ultimately I’m finding that I have a real peace toward those who hold to some form of theism or another. They are genuinely sincere and I remember thinking as they do.

What I find myself increasingly impatient and intolerant of, however, is science denialism.  Science denialists? People who just straight up deny science. People who are not scientists who proudly declare a contrary position.

Specifically, they selectively deny science. The fiber-optic cables, orbiting satellites, microscopic illuminated pixels and etched silicon that allows them to read this blog or tap like on an affirming sentiment overlaying the image of a sunset… whatever, could be faster. The specialized tubing threaded up to coronary arteries carrying a balloon to be inflated and implant a stent to prevent future heart attacks without invasive surgery… it’s a miracle. DNA sequencing that identifies parentage or puts an accused man in prison… undeniable.

However, when identical methods produce results that appear to be in conflict with economic benefit, lifestyle choice, or worst of all… the interpreted meaning of ancient holy books, the scientific method is suddenly in the reliability category of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey played by devious hucksters.

I can’t put my finger on it, but my emotions rise when this happens. I have visceral anger and physical response when an armchair observer thinks they have the secret data that undermines entire fields. As if, somehow, these gotchas have never reached the people spending their lifetimes dedicated to the fields in question. Or, more importantly, never reached competing scientists who could earn a Nobel prize and funding for life by calling out the Emperor’s new clothes.

Obviously, all scientific claims take on the burden of proof. If the evidence is not compelling to you, that is your right, privilege and duty as a skeptic to not accept. Everyone should be skeptical. However, if you do not take the time or effort to actually understand the claims and the evidence, then your conclusions cannot and should not be respected. Worse yet, if you had your conclusions before examining the data… your opinion deserves to be ignored.

(The potential irony of my feelings about science denial compared to my own deity denial is not lost on me. It is why I attempt to be relentless in seeking every argument for a god, every evidence for the Bible. A theist may assert that I’m just not seeing the evidence, as I might say to them about science. But I do all that I can to look myself in the mirror with intellectual honesty and know that I’m genuinely open to my position being challenged and shown incorrect. How sure is a position that refuses evaluation?)

Some deniers appeal to common sense. As if common sense has ever had anything to do with any scientific discovery. Frankly, it is the counter-intuitive nature of the universe that necessitates science in the first place. It is not common sense that the heavy objects and light objects fall at the same rate. It is not common sense that invisible microscopic organisms cause disease. It is not common sense that apparently solid objects are composed of atoms that are themselves largely made up of empty space. Intuition is not a way of knowing. Incredulity is not a counterpoint. Common sense loses to evidence and explanatory power.

Some deniers point to the changing nature of science, as if that fluidity makes its conclusions tentative or unreliable. Science improves. Science corrects. Science welcomes new data. At no time has science ever abandoned a natural explanation for a supernatural one.

Some deniers point to frauds (intentional and ignorant) of the past, well-known methodological limitations or unsettled details as if they might in any way taint other observations or conclusions. To add to the insult, all of the cited frauds, limitations and disagreements were discovered by other scientists… not science deniers. It is what scientists do… attempt to invalidate. Whatever the denier thinks, science isn’t ignoring these points, as science discovered them.

In the midst of this sea of intellectual irritation, I have found soothing solace in the sincerity and mission of ministries like Reasons to Believe and BioLogos. These are organizations comprised of scientists who are Christians who write to an audience of Christians who are not scientists. They believe that their god has revealed himself in two separate but equal revelations — scriptures and nature.

Because these groups “affirm that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God”, I prefer to refer to their resources on topics like

It removes the fallacy of differing worldview distraction from the equation. Deniers may not know it, but millions of Christians embrace the revelation of creation without threat to their faith.

If you are into science, that’s great. Please take the time to honestly understand and evaluate the claims being made by the communities that dedicate their entire lives to the advancement of knowledge.

If you’re not into science — if you don’t know or care about the magnetic, gravitational and gyroscopic factors taken into consideration to maintain the geosynchronous orbit that brings data to your cell phone — please be humble enough to acknowledge that while neither consensus nor authority is adequate to establish truth, it takes rare insight, aptitude and tenacity to justify breaking with them. There’s a reason why we remember names like Einstein, Newton, Galileo and Pasteur.

(If you think you have some gotcha tidbit in favor of a young earth, anti-evolution, pro-flood thinking, please check it against the Talk Origins index of creationist claims. At least know the counterpoint — whether you agree or not — before bringing it up. On the other hand, if you have something new, I’d genuinely love to hear it.)

If your god needs protection from science, then he isn’t much of one.

The Magician-Free Illusion of Objective Morality

The Magician-Free Illusion of Objective Morality

Based on the frequency it has been posed to me, Christians find that objective morality is particularly convincing evidence of their God. The “Moral Argument” contends not only that objective morality is a thing that exists, but that a God is required for it…. therefore God.

Despite my persistent asking, no one has ever given me an example of this objective morality. However, moral argument proponent William Lane Craig was kind enough to provide a definition that I think we can work with. “To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so,” he writes.

The evidence presented for the existence of this objective morality tends to rely exclusively on appeal to emotion, appeal to intuition, scripture verses or references to Nazis. Of course, none of these things are actual evidence.

I have yet to be presented with a compelling case that objective morality exists. As far as any philosopher or layperson has demonstrated, morality is subjective. Any objectivity you cling to is as illusory as the flat, stationary ground we stand on while the sun goes down. More importantly, I trust you will see that this illusion requires no external magician to explain it.

Evaluating Behavior

Objective or subjective aside, I think we can all agree that morality is primarily concerned with behavior, and determining which behaviors are better than others. Some will simplistically label behaviors with a binary “right” or “wrong” system. Most, however, will be sophisticated enough to acknowledge that morality is more of a spectrum.

For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine that we can plot actions on a two-dimensional grid. In the center, we would find the most moral action – point A. For all other potential actions, we would evaluate their morality based on the distance from point A. The further from the center, the less moral. The closer, more moral.

graph-paper-objective

So points D and E are equally moral, though less moral than C, which is in turn less moral than B. This evaluation of distance is true regardless of whether you believe it or not. In this way, we can objectively evaluate behavior. The moral argument seems sound so far.

All the Starting Points

However, if you’ve been around humans for any length of time, you may have noticed that determining a “most moral action” is likely to cause some disagreement. To determine it, some would factor in theology, or ideology, or pragmatism, societal pressures, or perhaps merely personal preference. This perspective is unique to each individual. As such, we end up with a new graph.

graph-paper-purpledots

We are now confronted with the view that determining the morality of an action depends on the point from which you measure. Actions B, C, D and E are different distances from the different purple dots. Our observation of the present, and analysis of history, tells us that this accurately reflects how humans make decisions about behavior. Different groups, right down to different individuals, choose their own starting point and act accordingly. And these starting points change over time.

Of course, that there are many adopted starting points tells us nothing about the existence of an objective point A. Indeed, by the apologist’s definition, point A needs to be correct whether anyone believes it or not.

But you can see that any given action will have an objective assessment relative to each subjective starting point. And, of course, a person standing at any given point feels equally entitled to the objective correctness of their view as anyone standing at any other point. It is all relative.

At this point, you may protest that while everyone has an opinion, some opinions simply must be more right than others for we “just know” in our head/heart/gut that generosity is more moral than genocide.

Animal Kingdom

Let’s set aside human morality for a minute and take a look at behavior in the animal kingdom.

Apart from the advantages of warm-bloodedness, one of the keys to the flourishing of mammals on the earth has been their tendency toward being social animals. Despite varying degrees, the list of social mammals is extensive… bats, cats, chimps, dogs, dolphins, elephants, gerbils, gorillas, horses, hyenas, leopards, lions, meerkats, orca, rabbits, rats, wolves and zebra, to name a few.

It is a common misconception to think of the phrase “survival of the fittest” in terms of the slowest gazelle in a herd, who will more likely be dinner than a parent. But it is to the advantage of a species to exhibit what biologists call reciprocal altruism — when an organism acts in a manner temporarily reducing its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness. The sacrificing organism carries the expectation that the other will act in a similar manner at a later time. Such actions increase the fitness of the species.

For example, vampire bats who fail on a given night’s hunt will beg another bat for food. The fed bat may regurgitate some blood to sustain the other member. While any bat may donate to any other bat, researchers have found that the sharing does not happen proportionally. Bats are most likely to share with relatives, next most often with bats from the same colony, and least likely with those from outside the colony. This is an example of tribalism — a hierarchy of loyalism to those most likely to further an individual’s genes or species.

Of course, some animals go beyond altruism and develop negative reciprocity where individuals who fail to provide for the group are punished or shunned by the group. These non-cooperative individuals are excluded from breeding, thus ensuring the next generation is more likely to have the altruistic traits. For example, macaques that find food without giving food calls to others become the target of aggression. Domestic horses that are fed separately within sight of the group will be attacked upon return. As such, these animals learn social consequences of their actions.

In more complex social structures, individuals are allowed levels of individual expression so long as that expression does not jeopardize the group. While elephants are lead by a matriarch, she will listen to and accommodate requests from adults and juveniles alike. Some elephants become popular while others do not, outside of leadership and lineage. Dolphins researchers identify that each individual dolphin has a unique whistle that identifies him to other members of his pod, and that the pod will respond uniquely depending on the perceived behavior of the individual.

Naturalist Morality: Well-Being

Christian apologists tend to hold that morality is a trait unique to specially created humans, so would think of animal behavior as instinctual rather than moral. A naturalist would claim that social behavior has given some species an evolutionary benefit and these were honed in millions of years of natural selection. Either way, one could identify a moral system that would arise from the behavior of social mammals.

As for all animals, the key priority would be survival of the species, followed by the flourishing of the group and then individual self-preservation and preference. Morality would be determined by a blend of…

  • altruistic reciprocity – a kind of do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you “golden rule” (as made popular by the writing of Confucius some 500 years before the events of the New Testament)
  • consequentialism – if everyone in society acted a certain way, what would the consequences be? what are the consequences of an act to the individual?
  • tribalism – greatest loyalty for those closest in genetics or proximity… family, clan, tribe, species, territory, continent, planet (for when Independence Day happens for real), universe
  • individual rights – when not in direct conflict with the needs of the group, the preference of the individual is honored. (My right to swing my fist stops at the point your nose begins.)

Such a moral code would require no divine revelation as it would be determined solely by biological and evolutionary necessity and advantage. We will call this naturalistic moral system “well-being”.

The Necessity of God

A moral system based on natural “well-being” requires no divine revelation to find consensus. Biological and evolutionary necessity and advantage are all that is needed.

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“Well-being” is not “borrowing from a religious world view” as a theist may charge, though the confusion is understandable. On the “obvious” moral values — murder, theft, assault, kindness, and the like — the various surviving world theologies are predictably aligned with natural survival traits. (Theologies or ideologies that promote destructive behavior will ultimately go extinct as adherents disappear.)

Please be clear, I am not advocating that a “well-being” morality system is in any way objective. It is every bit as subjective as any other theology or ideology, despite having my personal endorsement. No, I present it here to demonstrate that what theists point to as objective morals “divinely written on our hearts” is adequately, if not superiorly, explained without need of a supernatural source.

But you may object, this “well-being” morality doesn’t explain how we know that witcheshomosexuals and atheists must be put to death, where to buy slaves and how badly to beat them, that rape victims should be forced to marry their rapist, that the teaching of a woman is less desirable than that of a man, and that polyester / cotton blends are immoral. That’s true. Those things have nothing to do with well-being. For those judgements, you would need a never-changing decree from a god.

It might come as a surprise to you, but if you don’t follow everything listed in the paragraph above, then you have created your own subjective morality where you evaluate what is right and wrong using your own personal criteria. I applaud this… a system to decide is much better than an inflexible, incomplete, authoritative decree.

Well, Why Should Anyone Care about Well-Being?

It is about at this point that I hear theists throw up their hands and question why a secular-minded person would care about well being in the first place. (Maybe they throw in a “since we’re just a collection of atoms” for good measure.)

This is obviously a non-sequetor to the moral argument being presented, since the assertion is that objective morality is independent of anyone agreeing or adhering to it. If it’s ok to ignore objective morality, it must be ok to ignore subjective.

This is like discussing the relative health merits of jogging vs. eating a bag of potato chips, but trying to end the discussion by asking why anyone should even care if they are being healthy. Obviously, many people do not care about their own health. You cannot make someone care about health, despite what may seem like self-evident reasons. This has no bearing on an attempt to evaluate the health benefit of actions. We just agree to a common reference point that health is better than non-health, whether such an assumption is justified or not.

Two people have to agree to a common goal in order to commonly evaluate morality. That’s just the way it works. That’s why all morality is relative.

If we can agree that well-being is better than not-well-being, then discussion can begin. If we can’t, we can’t. No god required.

This is the only life we know we have, and the only society and planet that we are likely to have access to in our lifetimes. That is plenty of justification for a typical secular person, not that it matters.

Burden of Proof

Obviously, the assertions “if God exists, objective moral values exist” and “objective moral values exist” are positive claims that require proof. They do not need to be disproven. I could be completely wrong in every word I wrote, and they would remain unproven assertions.

However, I do believe I have properly demonstrated plausible naturalistic explanations for this intuitive morality that theists appeal to.

Moreover, if this theoretical objective morality does exist, it is of no practical use to we humans, since we cannot identify it. If we could, Christianity would not have thousands of denominations.

The morality you cling to is subjective, your own personal cherry-picking interpretation, because the objective one is no more identifiable than the square root of zero — and no more useful in a proof.

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If you’re interested in more on this topic, allow me to suggest any of Matt Dillahunty’s clear discussions on morality, like this one.

 

 

Two Weeks of Four Weeks to Live

Two Weeks of Four Weeks to Live

On April 25 of this year, I added a brief comment to the description of my photo-of-the-day entry, “Was rescanned this afternoon. Still cancer-free.”

My particular cancer, Myxoinflammatory Fibroblastic Sarcoma, has a high recurrence rate and spreads quickly, so I will be scanned multiple times a year for the rest of my life. I probably won’t mention clear diagnosis on social media going forward, but it was novel in April to have had my first post-surgery scan. Ideally they will become boring and routine.

That said, late on May 13 I received a call from the cancer centre to let me know that my x-rays were not clean after all. The doctors found a spot in a right-side rib that was concerning and that they couldn’t identify. I was to report to radioactive medicine the following Wednesday for a bone scan. The caller used the phrase “nothing to worry about” at least five times in the brief call. That’s one of those phrases that seems less genuine the more often it is used.

My mind couldn’t help but leap back to my original diagnosis last fall when my lead oncologist told me, probably more casually than he intended, that “If it gets in your chest, you’ll have about four weeks to live.”

I’m obviously not trained in medicine, but my amateur understanding is that my rib is in my chest. And my math skills are still pretty solid.

This news came as my teens were already scattering to their weekend activities and a week of living at their mom’s house. I hadn’t processed enough to try to wrangle them back and give them this nebulous bit of news. With nothing really to do or to report, I didn’t see a reason to lend any weight to their weekend. Though that decision still bothers me a little, so perhaps it was not the right one. I’ll continue to evaluate that.

The net result was an anvil of uncertainty hanging over my weekend and following days. At one time in my life, the test itself might have been a bigger deal. It required reporting to nuclear medicine first thing in the morning to be injected with a radioactive cocktail that would then need three hours to circulate in my blood enough to permeate bone. Then an hour of needing to hold perfectly still (with some straps to “help”) on a bed slab as square-meter camera panels slowly panned all around me. For a severe claustrophobe, it wasn’t quite as bad as an MRI, but as it was an inch from my nose for way too long. I’ll perhaps ask to have some magazine articles taped to it for next time.

I was told to expect a call in 3-5 days with results, good or bad. “We don’t believe that no news is good news,” the nurse told me. I was too out of it to think to ask if those were business days or planetary rotations. (I foolishly didn’t consider the possibility of those biblical “unspecified time period” days.)

I’ve had the opportunity (“pleasure” is the wrong word, perhaps “honor”) recently to speak with individuals who are having their own cancer scares. My advice has been that the not-knowing waiting-to-hear period is actually the worst part of all of it. The part to live through. Once the diagnosis has been made, the body and mind can snap into battle mode and take whatever seeming torture the treatment brings as steps forward. But in the time of waiting, the mind is left to speculate and mine is capable of conjuring unnatural darkness. (Fed all the more by scraps of rational possibility.)

The mind also has amazing abilities to protect us from realities too big to handle. Distractions and responsibilities allowed me to live the remaining days with a sense of a cloud, but mostly unaffected in general tasks. And, frankly, I’ve already made a lot of peace with the reality of the temporary nature of my life. Any of us could be hit by a bus any day… I just might have the fortune / misfortune of seeing mine coming. I don’t fear or lament the end of me, but merely ache for the impact to my children and others left. (My personal mortality issues are quite different, perhaps for another day.)

But nor will my brain leave me in peace, rather the next eight days were punctuated with random assaults. “If I’m not going to be here, why am I paying this cable bill?”, it would question. “You have one month, and this is what you’re doing?” was common, perhaps loudest when mowing my dandelions.

The greatest trigger was anyone asking me to look ahead past the next week. “Do you have plans for the summer?” is well meaning conversation, but I had to bite back hard to not retaliate with a sharp, “I won’t be here.” Kids and life require some forward looking, but I was completely incapable. There was a big black curtain separating the day I was occupying and those purely hypothetical future squares on the calendar. They were days of existing, but not living.

One of those days was my birthday. Years ago, birthdays became crisis and crossroads days for me, not in any way something to be celebrated… more of an anger renewal. My kids and I had the day before my birthday off of school and work for Canada’s Victoria Day, so we hit the zoo, despite the sn0w-like rain, and had a great time together with a special dinner and daughter-crafted cake. That left my mind undistracted on my actual birthday… not a good idea.

I was ready for either news. Either way was welcome.

On Thursday, 13 days after the original call, I finally heard. It was an administrator talking to me and not a doctor, so that automatically meant good news, but also less information. The spot on my rib was “not cancer” and “unconcerning”. What is it? Since I’m stubbornly unwilling to make an appointment with my doctor only for clarification beyond his call instructions, that revelation will have to wait for my next scans in August.

It’s just a few days past the news now, but I’m looking again at the dandelions that have since sprouted. I have an indeterminate time here, is that what I’m doing?