My third letter to Eva

From [email protected] Thu Apr 15 00:15:06 1999
Date: Thu, 18 Feb 1999 14:52:07 -0500 (EST)
From: Reverend Jan
To: eva
Subject: Re: your mail

On Thu, 18 Feb 1999, eva wrote:

I was very pleased to hear from you. In response to your questions, I would like to relate a bit about my "religious" orientation. I was raised Catholic, but have since affiliated myself with a Messianic congregation, that is, Jews who believe that Christ is the Messiah.

I would argue that this, in fact, makes you a Christian who prefers some Jewish rituals to the traditional Christian ones, rather than a "real" Jew who, by definition (afaIk), does not believe the messiah has yet arrived... but that's just semantics.

Rather than encumber you with the details that led me to this choice, suffice to say for many years I investigated the customs, culture and beliefs of different religions, and felt that this particular one came the closest to the manner in which I personally desired to worship.

Actually, I am very curious to know why you chose this particular branch of religion over all the others in existence. Surely this was not a scientific decision? (You did imply in your first message that your belief in a higher power was based on reason and science, after all.)

Even though I was raised with the strong conviction that God existed,

I would argue that this already rendered your judgement -- and I don't mean this in a negative way -- somewhat questionable. "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will have him for the rest of his life" as the (paraphrased) Bishop said... If you are raised to believe something as a child, the brain forms very substantial connections to reinforce that belief (just as for sight, touch, logic, etc.) and as an adult, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to break those connections -- and I mean that literally and figuratively.

by my very nature (stubborn and curious), I had to be certain that what I had been taught, was, in fact the truth, at least for me to embrace it unreservedly.

If you embrace it unreservedly, that means there is no room for argument, yes? This certainly implies that if someone were to present you with a data point from the "other side", you would not be willing to change your beliefs to fit this data point... as a scientist would, since science relies on the existence of evidence to the contrary to shape its hypotheses and theories.

Many people believe (or not) in a Higher Power, but a fair percentage are luke-warm in their convictions, and hardly give their beliefs, either way, much thought. They seem rather content to meander spiritually, and what I consider, to blindly follow, in cult fashion , what is being handed to them on the "religious" platter.

I do agree here. Many of the people I know who call themselves religious are in fact merely social believers -- if the rest of their 'tribe' (if you will) was into walking on coals and sacrificing mosquitoes, they'd find those practices just as satisfactory as going to church on Sundays.

Admittedly, at one time, I myself fell in this category. In fact, I gave little thought to God. I considered attending church, praying,etc boring and that it inteferred in my lifestyle, which, at the time , was partying and having a wild time.:)

Ah, the familiar story. How many truly happy and contented people find god? It always seems to be the ones who are not finding meaning in their own lives who need to have meaning from a higher power. I myself became religious... not when I was happy, but when I was in the depths of depression. After I got over the depression, the idea of a god was once again as illogical as it had been beforehand, and I believe that is a data point for some chemical "need" for meaning.

There were, though, certain crisises that ocurred in my life that caused me to stop and ponder a bit on this whole "God" concept, the first being the sudden and tragic death of a boyfriend. At that time, I was confronted with the reality of death, and the shear brevity and uncertainty of life. Someone who I had known and loved was present and vital in my life, and gone in an instant. I just couldn't accept the existance of human life as being random and without meaning.

... and because you couldn't accept it, it mustn't be so? I don't mean to take you lightly here; I know exactly how you feel (believe me), but the argument from non-acceptance is just as faulty as the argument from disbelief. I have a hard time accepting that one day, the universe will die from heat death (entropy reaches a maximum and the universe becomes a uniform sea of heat energy), but that does not invalidate the physics behind the theory.

I began to wonder, if the universe is not created or is in some manner accidental, then it has no objective meaning, and consequently, life, including human life, has no meaning.

Not so. As conscious beings, we must make meaning for ourselves. Why do the planets follow regular orbits? Not because they feel that a higher power *wants* them to, but because gravity mandates that they must. Why do raindrops form spheres? Not because the sphere is the most perfect aesthetically, but because it minimizes the surface area to volume ratio. Why does every living being seek to reproduce itself? Not because sex is necessarily pleasant (does an apple blossom feel spiritually uplifted when it is pollinated?), but because sex is the most efficient way of combining genes and thus producing maximal variety, which has been selected for by evolution because the more variety you have, the more chance your offspring stand of surviving a crisis. (Though I probably don't have to tell you that...)

A mechanical chain of events determines everything. Morality and religion may be temporarily useful but are ultimately irrelevant.

True. Religion and morality are consciousness' way of insuring that consciousness continues, just as the sexual rituals of many animals are ways of insuring that the species continues. Birds probably don't *need* to sing, in the grand scheme of things, but their songs insure that only other birds of their own species respond to the mating call, and probably enhance some communal bond as well.

This whole concept, the more I pondered it, especially as a scientist, did not sit well with me, not at all.

Oops -- it's the argument from non-acceptance again...

Randomness of life, when we live in such an ordered universe, when even science attempts an explanation for all? If our lives consist merely of blocks of existance to end ultimately in death, then, what is the point? What is our motivation for anthing? It just appears to be an excercise in futility.

No, it is an exercise in continuing the species. Most moral "truths" are merely humanity's way of keeping the species from killing itself off (though there is little danger of that now, except by means of mass destruction). Thou shalt not kill? Sure, because if you do, the gene pool gets reduced. Other morals are more presumptous, and seek to stop humans from practicing behaviours that might have worked in the forest primeval, but don't sit too well in developed society. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife? Well, although this would help you spread out your genes, it would also mean that (in a tribal sense) you would have to provide for her as well, and possibly face reprisal from thy neighbor. If society suffers (from lack of moral judgement) then the individual suffers, too.

Jan, as an atheist, have you ever wondered about this?

Of course I have; and it doesn't bother me at all. As an atheist, I seek meaning where I can find it, but I never assume that because I exist and seek answers, there must be a magic puppet god in the wings calling the shots. In fact, I'll give you the meaning of life right now: the purpose of life is... to produce more life! That's been the history of life on our planet since it all started 3.5-4 billion years ago -- make more life at all costs! The meaning of *human* life varies from culture to culture and individual to individual; for me, I would like to increase the happiness of others, create as little unhappiness as possible, and help others learn about the world. I try to make sure that everything I do is a means to this end... and if it's not mandated by the Invisible Pink Unicorn, does that make it any less meaningful?

Thus began my quest to scrutinize science to examine if I, in fact, had been misled as a child and that there was no reality beyond what exists in our brief life. To my utter frustration, though, the more I peered into facts as science presented them, the more I discovered how inadequate science was in aquitting my belief in God. In fact, as I delved further into my investigation, the more certain I was that God was the only explanation. It is human nature, when searching for answers , to tend to find those to support one's own personal belief. But, I tried to be unbiased, and merely examined and questioned what I was presented.

You *tried* to be unbiased, despite your early brainwashing (and indoctrinating a child with beliefs s/he cannot understand or question is just that)... but you cannot possibly expect me to believe that there is *proof* outside the bible that Jesus Christ is your own personal saviour. There is none -- that's why it's called faith. When I was in my religious phase, I felt just the same -- every sunset I saw reaffirmed my faith -- why make it so beautiful unless it was going to mean something? But I was just attempting to superimpose my aesthetic sense on a physical universe in which, outside of animal consciousness, aesthetics are meaningless. Sunsets are pretty because our brains perceive them that way; the scattering of sunlight was not *meant* to provoke this reaction; it's just a consequence of physics, which we interpret that way because we like to.

Jan , before I continue and present some of my scientific argument, I am curious as to how you came to the conclusion that there is no God.

I have never found evidence to the contrary. Believing in god is not the default position (no one is born believing in god, and "lower" animals show no awareness of a higher power); non-belief is. I would have to see considerable evidence that there *is* a god in order to convince me that the default position was incorrect, and I have not yet seen any. Yes, there are things that make me wonder -- things that, as of yet, have no explanation. But the lack of an explanation is not evidence in and of itself. Ancient peoples had no idea why lightening occurred and why it could cause such damage, so they invented stories to explain it. Now we know why it happens, and we no longer assume that Zeus is throwing thunderbolts at his wayward followers. I could no more invoke Zeus for thunder and lightening than I could invoke JHVH for phenomenon of consciousness, or any of the other mysteries of life. I assume -- have faith, if you prefer -- that we will solve these mysteries at some point in the future, but I chose not to invoke the God of the Gaps for the time being.

I have two good friends who are atheists, and on a few occasions have had the opportunity to discuss their beliefs with them. One, a male friend was working on his Phd in astrophysics from Cambridge England. He shrugged his shoulders when unable to come up with a suitable answer to the scientific questions I proposed to him, and stated, I don't know , but I don't believe in God. (More a personal belief than one based in any fact).

And he was right to say it. Better to admit ignorance than to make unfounded assumptions. Besides, just because *he* doesn't know it doesn't mean that there isn't an answer out there somewhere. There's a lot I don't understand about physics (which my husband does), but I don't assume that some Lord of Quarks guides its action just because I don't personally understand it.

Both of his parents were atheists, so he was responding from a reference point of which he was familiar with. He wanted visable proof, which of course, by the very nature of God, I could not provide.

And therefore, your belief has no basis in science. It is merely a personal preference to the cold, hard world of facts in which we live.

By the same token I argued by asking him if he had ever been in love. "Yes" was his reply. Proof it, show it to me. "Don't be silly, it's not something you can see. You have to experience it." Exactly. Oh you may be able to scientifically show that certaing chemicals in the brain respond favorably to outer stimulation of the senses which produces the feeling of "being in love" , but then again, you would be hard pressed to show why we don't "fall in love" with eveybody and everything (such as a favorite chair) just because our brain's chemicals are favorably stimulated.

You bring up a good point here; but I do believe that consciousness contains random elements that are not necessarily accounted for in the physics we have thus far explored. Our understanding of physics on the level of quarks and such is still extremely limited... but that's where most biological interactions, such as in the brain, may take place. (I do have to plead ignorance here... but that doesn't mean I want the Magic Explanation to take over...)

Similiar to the experience of knowing God. One can only experience it to truly believe in its existance and know of its reality.

Did you ever read about the so-called "God Machine"? An experimentor built a device that would stimulate a specific portion of the brain, and when he stimulated one particular portion (unfortunately I don't remember which), people reported seeing visions, having a hightened sense of well-being, and many other phenomena that are normally associated with a spiritual experience. I think it's quite possible that in highly religious people, this center is better-developed or possibly stimulated more often, leading them to have more feelings that they interpret as being of divine origin. Just a data point...

Having said this, I have no illusions that what I discuss with you will at all change your belief in atheism, but just by the fact that you have replied to my e-mail at all reveals to me that you are an open-minded individual, and will at least respect my views.

I will respect your right to hold those views, anyway, even if I don't respect the views themselves; for example, I have little respect for faith in general, being that it is by its very nature completely illogical and unreasonable. BTW, I do not have a "belief in atheism" (aside from the fact that atheism exists and I agree with that...); I *am* an atheist, one who does not believe in the existence of a god. Just semantics, but important ones.

As I have stated, since God is something one must experience (such as love) no amount of information can sway an individual. Maybe , though, you may just have an inkling of doubt, which is a good thing. If, on the premise, I may just be correct in my belief that God does exist, you may at some time ask God for this experience yourself. If you don't get it, well, there should be enough proof for you.

I have; and got nothing. In my religious phase, I talked to god on an almost continuous basis, but never got anything that could even be interpreted as an answer. No unusual events, no voices in my head (besides my own), nothing. If there were a personal god, it would surely be aware of my requirements for belief; if it truly wanted to save me from everlasting hellfire and damnation, it would (I assume) have made its presence known somehow. But I never did and never have received this in any form; and so I must assume that, even if there were a god, it would not have the slightest interest in my soul.

But I dallied long enough. Let me begin a point. We must begin with an assumption, that either God is the creator and author of history, or that there is no God and creation/history can be explained without him. The answer depends on which assumption one wishes to go with. So let's assume your viewpoint. Darwinism.

Let's assume my *proper* viewpoint, which is probably not the "darwinism" you seem to be familiar with. The information I have seen thus far supports the theory of decent with modification, but this isn't always a steady modification (as Darwin proposed), nor does it necessarily take place in the manner he proposed... not to knock Darwin, because he could only base his hypotheses on the information available at the time, and we have learned an awful lot in the 140 years since then.

The Darwinist mechanisms of natural selection and mutation are useless until the first life form is assembled. In spite of decades of intense research, origin-of-life scientists have yet to demonstrate the feasibility of any mechanism for the assembly of a living orgainsm from an inorganic materials by strictly natural processes.

You want to compare *decades* of isolated, miniaturized experiments with the BILLION years that passed between the formation of the planet and the first *known* life forms? You want to compare the paltry numbers of atoms and the miniscule amount of energy available in these experiments to the quintillions of atoms and joules that existed in the early oceans? You want to compare a human lifetime to mechanisms that may have taken millennia? I'm afraid the few decades that humanity has been at this experiment really prove nothing by their apparent lack of results. Time and probablility are powerful allies in evolution...

Scientists have experimented with prebiotic soups (the warm ponds enriched with life-building molecules). Even under highly favorable conditions of a laboratory, these soups have failed to produce anything remotely resembling life. One probem is that the produce only a random distribution of left-and right-handed prebiotic molecules.

So because we can't explain it, you insist it must have been divinely ordered? The God of the Gaps returns again. Besides that, many biologists and evolutionary theorists in particular are now turning to the possibilty that life began in locales similar to the "black smokers" found near oceanic ridges on the ocean floor. The most ancient forms of life are known to exist there, and it is quite probable that life itself began in such a place. No more happy warm pond... it's the hot vents that now seem the most likely origin of life.

(As you probably know Jan, many prebiotic molcules, notably all but one of the bioactive amino acids, occure in two mirror-image forms that are arbitarily termed left and right-handed). Life chemistry demands that all the molecules be either right or left handed. With all our learning and technology, we cannot even come close to bringing life together in the lab.

And after a mere 200 years of experimentation, you expect us to do so? Nature has had 4500 million years to get this far...

Jumping ahead a bit to another point, let me define evolution. Evolution simply does not just mean change.

No, I'm afraid it does. Evolution means changing from one form to another through time. It doesn't in and of itself imply that the forms in question get better or worse, more or less complicated; it just means that they change. More specifically, many biologists define evolution as change as a result of environmental inputs, through time.

I think this is important because that most writers cite the evidence in favor of evolution as fact by simply the evidence of change. True evoltuion in a certain kind of change.

No, it doesn't. I don't know who you've been talking to, but I did a heavy concentration in evolution, and I've always heard evolution defined simply as change through time.

Sir Julian Huxley (a present day spokesman for evolution)

I have never heard of him; not that that means he doesn't exist, just that I would expect to have heard of my spokesman :)

stated that evolution is a one way process, irreversible in time, producing apparent novelties and greater variety, and leading to higher degrees of organization, more differentiated more complex but at the same time more integrated.

This is one definition; it is not necessarily accepted by all scientists. Science is not like, say, Roman Catholicism. When an idea is proposed, scientists demand data, perform experiments, debate the idea for years and years, and while some may accept the idea, others do not. Just because this Huxley you cite has defined evolution in this way, does not imply that all scientists agree.

In a nut shell, I take this to infer that everything in the universe has been developed by the process of evolution, which entails higher and higher levels of organization, right?

This is not a correct conclusion. The universe has developed into more and more complex structures, through the application of physical laws, but in time, entropy will begin to destroy that complexity (entropy always wins in the end). In the end, the universe will be a sea of heat energy, with no complexity -- hardly a higher level of organization.

Well, I began to ponder this, and so, I figured, if this is, in fact, the case, there should be some evidence of this process, if, it is indeed, ongoing. So where is it? Where is the evidence that the process of evolution in continuing to occur in nature?

We see it everywhere; I chose to interpret it as evolution, while you chose to interpret it as divine interaction.

Ah, but you may cite the argument for mutation, which does occur in nature. Outside the lab (via radiation) mutations do occur in nature , but do they produce a permanent change in the species itself?

You are confusing change within an individual with change in a species. Individuals do not, per se, evolve; only species can evolve. However, when a mutation occurs in an individual, it does change the frequency of alleles in the gene pool, which *some* biologists interpret as evolution.

And when this mutation occurs, does it result in a superior life form from which it originated? Most often , these mutations result in an inferior , diseased or malfunctioning organism.

This can be true; however, evolution is not really about the individual, remember. And besides that, there are several kinds of mutation. The kind you're thinking of -- single base-pair mutation -- is generally detrimental. But our DNA contains a lot of "extra" sequences, much of which is composed of repeats of functioning sequences. Changes in these sequences can add up over time, while they are not seen in the individual, and are passed on; and eventually, environmental conditions can change such that the new sequence is more desirable, when it is expressed in lieu of the old sequence. Mutation can also occur on a chromosomal level; we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but did you know that we have a different number of chromosomes? It appears that one or two of the chromosomes broke into separate ones and recombined, so that the genes are expressed differently even though the information is overwhelmingly similar. This can easily lead (and has led) to different species, quickly and without the detrimental affects of single-gene mutations; indeed, it is beginning to look as though many species came about in this manner.

More importantly, the organism is of the SAME species, not a totally new one. I would agrue that this process of mutation is not evolution--merely variation--but a horizontal change at the same level of organizational complexity, and it always seems to be confined within definite limits. There is no evidence that the limited horizontal changes ever become the unlimited vertical for real evolution to take place.

In the level of mutation you are proposing, this is largely true. However, other levels of mutation -- as above -- can lead to many more stark effects.

Check the fossil record. Are there any species, at all, (and there should be, considering all the thousands of species there are ) of a species in transition? (There are not, by the way. )

Sure there are. There are a huge number; you just chose to interpret them as though they were not. Besides that, fossilization takes a very specific set of circumstances; it is a rare individual indeed that gets fossilized.

What about the time required to complete these evolutions from one life form to another? As you know, mutations in nature are quite rare, and when they do occur, tend to disappear rather quickly, usually being patholgic or neutral, in a struggle for existance.

Again, you site only one form (single-gene or single base-pair) or mutation. This is not the only kind of mutation that occurs, even though it may be the most frequent *in our experience*. When the environment is undergoing rapid transitions, mutation rates also appear to rise (see the Cambrian explosion), while in periods of relative environmental stability (like now) the rate is much slower.

If they survive at all, they build up a "genetic load" in the population, reducing its overall viability. The reason actual mutations are harmful is because they represent random restructioning of the complex replicating system of the cell.

Once again, this is true of some kinds of mutation, but not all of them.

When any complex organism undergoes a random change, it will become LESS organized and therefore less functional. Mutations may bring about the demise of a species, but it is impossible for me to fathom how it could ever bring about the origin of a species.

Argument from disbelief: not valid. Sorry, try again.

So of course, there is the other assumption, that there is a God, a knowing, intellectual being which created the world. How else can all the laws of nature be defined, even to mathematical equations?

Anthropic argument: not valid. We're here to see the glory of the universe because in another universe with different laws, something else would have happened. The universe created those laws in the first milliseconds of its existence. Different initial conditions might have produced different laws. We just happened to get this one. There's no need to bring in a god; otherwise... how did god get here? And why can't this same miraculous god-making force work just as well for the universe itself?

Well, Jan, enough of this particular point for now. (I do have others)

Oh, good. I will enjoy going through them as well... provided they're a little more challenging ;)

Sorry this was so lenghty, but I could see no other way to accuratly make my point.

Call it what you like... Next time, could you please use paragraphs? One long scroll was a little difficult on the eyes.

In life,

Next: Eva's reply to me


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