Thoughts on New Atheism

Thoughts on New Atheism
Through Multiverses, Eyes, and Weasels

Among the several ideologies opposing Christianity, one in particular claims that Christianity lacks credible evidence to support its beliefs. Richard Dawkins, the famous Oxford professor and evolutionary biologist who wrote best-selling books such as The Blind Watchmaker (1986) and The God Delusion (2006) espouses one such position that attempts to prove that belief in a divine being or in a creationism is simply delusional. He implies that other ideas, such as New Atheism, are superior because they are supported by reliable proofs, which merge together to form a cohesive argument. However, it is important to note that arguments such as New Atheism also incorporate beliefs that cannot be completely verified by credible proof. No particular way of life or belief system is “better” than another, and thus, New Atheism’s assumed superiority to religious faith must be questioned. Every worldview makes truth claims and faith assumptions to show its uniqueness and superiority over other worldviews, and New Atheism is no exception.

In order to illustrate this, we first need to establish a working definition of “belief.” The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “to believe” is to “accept that (something) is true, especially without proof.” Similarly, “proof” is “evidence or argument establishing a fact or the truth of a statement.” For Christians, the idea of “faith,” or convictions held despite a perceived lack of proof, is not new at all. In fact, faith is defined in the Bible as “confidence in what we [Christians] hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”1 However, for the New Atheist, the thought of any reliable idea lacking proof is appalling, as the utilization of rational arguments is the main technique to counter, criticize and expose religion.2

Specifically, New Atheists agree that attributing the present, life-supporting conditions of the universe to a designer should be rejected. Instead, cosmological theories such as the multiverse theory are offered up as conceivable alternatives.3 In addition, Dawkins has advocated that the Genesis 1 account of creation is rendered obsolete by the evidence of evolutionary processes guided by non-random mutation and blind natural selection. While it would take an incredible amount of time to discuss these theories at length, I will offer a few brief points to demonstrate that irrefutable evidence and inconsistent reasoning fail to support Dawkins’ theories.

  1. The universe’s fine-tuned conditions for intelligent life: Among other theories, the multiverse theory proposed by Richard Dawkins states that “out of an infinite number of universes, one will bound to be fine-tuned by chance alone and that one happens to be our universe.”4 While Dawkins acknowledges that the multiverse may seem overwhelming due to its sheer number of universes, he also notes, “[I]f each one of these universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we’re still not postulating anything highly improbable.”

However, philosophers such as William Lane Craig note that each universe in the multiverse should not be defined as simple, as they are each characterized by several constants and quantities. For example, Stephen Hawking pointed out that “if the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million; the universe would have re-collapsed before it ever reached its present size.”5 Also, other constants such as the speed of light, the force of gravity and electromagnetism need to work precisely in order for life to exist. Thus, the complexity of our universe contradicts one of the basic premises of the multiverse theory, indicating that an element of belief is needed for this theory to completely explain the improbability of our universe being fine-tuned for life.

  1. Evolution by non-random mutation and natural selection: Interestingly enough, the illustration of a monkey using a typewriter has been used to illustrate the improbability of a series of favorable mutations andnatural selection leading to life on earth. For example, Dawkins calculated that the odds of a monkey producing the statement “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL?” by randomly typing at a typewriter is “about 1 in 10,000 million million million million million million.” This improbability highlighted by Dawkins represents “single-step selection,” where everything needed to generate a living organism must come together at once or nothing will happen. After his analysis, Dawkins himself noted that “if evolutionary progress had to rely on single-step selection, it would never have gotten anywhere.”6

To further illustrate the improbability of single-step selection, we can use the example of the eye, as Michael J. Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, did in his book Darwin’s Blackbox (1998). Behe noted that the eye required several components in order to produce vision (retina, lens, etc.) and that missing any of these components would diminish one’s vision or cause blindness, as the ability of the eye to see is dependent on all of its parts. Behe defines this as “irreducible complexity,” which is “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease function.”7 He further notes that an irreducibly complex system “cannot be produced…by continuously improving the initial function…by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition non-functional.”8 In relation to the eye, then, the lens without the retina is not capable of seeing at all.

Thus, if an organism had a lens but none of the other prerequisites to produce vision, natural selection would not keep the lens around and wait for the other parts of the eye to form. First, as Dawkins noted, “evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection”9 (thus the term “blind” natural selection). Natural selection only knows that the lens serves no function at the present moment. It would therefore eliminate the lens, not choosing it because “natural selection can only choose systems that are already working.”10 So even if a fully functional cornea appears in the later stages of the development process, no lens would be present for the cornea’s arrival, as natural selection, which chooses function, would have eliminated any part that is useless by itself.

To counter the inadequacy of single-step selection, Dawkins proposes the process “cumulative selection” using the typewriter11 example:

  1. First, there is a random sequence of 28 letters (with spaces as one letter):

WDLMNLT DTJBKWIRZREZLMQCO P

  1. Then, as this sequence of letters is duplicated repeatedly, there is a certain chance of random error, or “mutation” in the copying. For example, after 10 generations of copying, the phrase chosen for “breeding” in Dawkins’ experiment was:

MDLDMNLS ITJISWHRZREZ MECS P

After 20 generations, it was:

MELDINLS IT ISWPRKE Z WECSEL

After 40 generations, the phrase was only one letter away from reaching the required sequence:

ME THINKS IT IS LIKE I WEASEL

And following 3 more tries of recopying the phase, the target phrase (ME THINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL) was reached after generation 43. As you can see from this example (and as Dawkins noted), “each improvement, however slight, is used as a basis for future building, whereas in single-step selection, each new try is a fresh one.”

However, there are several fatal flaws in this line of reasoning that destabilizes Dawkins’ argument:

a) Lack of inerrant duplication: In Dawkins’ example, once a target letter has been placed in the right place, it never moves or changes in future generations of duplication. For instance, the first letter M, correctly selected at the 10th generation of duplication, does not change once in the next 22 duplications; which implies that this type of natural selection is not blind because it is clearly aiming to eventually achieve the phrase ME THINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL.

b) Constant number of variables: In Dawkins’ example, the sequence starts out with 28 letters and this number is retained through all rounds of duplication. In nature, however, this is unrealistic, due to chromosomal aberrations in cell division. For example, during cell division, there are times where one chromosome is absent from the normal diploid complement (monosomy)12 or an additional chromosome is present in an otherwise diploid cell (trisomy)13, causing conditions such as Turner’s syndrome and Down syndrome respectively.

In response to these issues, Dawkins admitted in a later chapter that “although the monkey/Shakespeare model is useful for explaining the distinction between single-step selection and cumulative selection, it is misleading in important ways…one of these is that, in each generation of selective breeding, the mutant progeny phrases were judged according to the criterion of resemblance to a distant ideal target, the phrase ME THINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL.” However, as mentioned earlier, Dawkins noted that evolution works through blind natural selection with no long-term goal or final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection. Here there is a contradiction in Dawkins’ argument that cannot be resolved through consistent and logical reasoning.

With all this in mind, it seems that faith-based groups are not alone in incorporating beliefs that are not necessarily verified by what the scientific community considers credible proof. Theories such as the multiverse theory and evolution guided by non-random mutation and blind natural selection lack consistent reasoning and irrefutable proof. While New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins undoubtedly possess brilliant intellectual minds, they cannot yet claim that New Atheism is superior to other belief systems.

 

References

  1. Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
  2. Hooper, Simon. “The rise of the New Atheists”. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/europe/11/08/atheism.feature/index.html. Retrieved 2010-03-16.
  3. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: A Mariner Book, 2008), pp. 173-175
  4. Richard Dawkins and the Teleological Argument [Video], (2011).
  5. Brief History of Time: Updated and pages 155-156.
  6. Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton, 1986. Print.
  7. Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Blackbox (New York: A Touchstone Book 1998), p. 39.
  8. Dawkins (1986), p. 49.
  9. Ibid, p. 50.
  10. Behe, p. 39.
  11. Dawkins (1986), pp. 47-49.
    12.http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/monosomy
    13.http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/trisomy
  • Special thanks to Dr. Ryun Chang for his material as well as editorial input into this article.

 

Jabez Yeo will be a December 2012 graduate, studying Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as Finance and Social Impact in the Wharton School.

 

Thumbnail image by Aeolos, from Stock Free Images.

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