Another Case Not Made: A Critique of Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator (2005)
Review: Lee Strobel. 2004. The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 352 pp.
[Note that the author only critiques the chapters of the book that consist of interviews with Lee Strobel’s experts. — Ed.]
Chapter 3: Doubts about Darwinism
Chapter 4: Where Science Meets Faith
Chapter 5: The Evidence of Cosmology: Beginning with a Bang
Chapter 6: The Evidence of Physics: The Cosmos on a Razor’s Edge
Chapter 7: The Evidence from Astronomy: The Privileged Planet
Chapter 8: The Evidence of Biochemistry: The Complexity of Molecular Machines
Chapter 9: The Evidence of Biological Information: The Challenge of DNA and the Origin of Life
Chapter 10: The Evidence of Consciousness: The Enigma of the Mind
Lee Strobel returns with another entry in his popular “The Case for …” apologetic series. This time out, in The Case for a Creator, Strobel writes about evidences that purport to show that the universe and life are designed—designed by an “Intelligent Designer.” Of course, even if his case that some intelligence did create the universe is sound, it is unclear which or how many creators are at the helm. Occasionally, some reference is made to reasons why Strobel and his interviewees believe that the Creator is specifically the Christian God. And Strobel even provides as an appendix a summary of his earlier work, The Case for Christ. But for the most part, the arguments simply address the claim that a creator of some sort must exist.
Like other books in his apologetic series, Strobel uses interviews with experts in various fields, assigning himself the role of the skeptic. In the introduction, he discusses his motivation for undertaking this task:
When I first began exploring these issues in the early 1980’s, I found that there was a sufficient amount of evidence to guide me to a confident conclusion. Much has changed since then, however. Science is always pressing relentlessly forward, and a lot more data and many more discoveries have poured into the reservoir of scientific knowledge during the past twenty years. All of which has prompted me to ask a new question: does this deeper and richer pool of contemporary scientific research contradict or affirm the conclusions I reached so many years ago? Put another way, in which direction—toward Darwin or God—is the current arrow of science pointing?
… My approach would be to cross-examine authorities in various scientific disciplines about the most current findings in their fields. In selecting these experts, I sought doctorate-level professors who have unquestioned expertise, are able to communicate in accessible language, and who refuse to limit themselves only to the politically correct world of naturalism or materialism. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to rule out any hypothesis at the onset. I wanted the freedom to pursue all possibilities.
I would stand in the shoes of the skeptic, reading all sides of each topic, and posing the toughest objections that have been raised (p. 28).
Strobel is overtly inflammatory when he writes that he chose experts who “refuse to limit themselves only to the politically correct world of naturalism and materialism.” This already insinuates that regardless of one’s expertise in a particular subject matter, an individual is automatically disqualified from serving as one of Strobel’s experts if he happens to be a naturalist or materialist. Perhaps Strobel might have considered asking some scientists why supernatural explanations—even if true—do not generally make testable predictions, the first rule of science. The relevant issues here do not concern “political correctness,” but a conflict between the inherent nature of science and supernatural explanations (see Objection 2 of my critique of Strobel’s The Case for Faith).
Strobel is frankly misleading about his experts’ qualifications. While spending paragraphs touting each of his interviewees’ “doctorate-level” educations, he fails to point out that most of them do not have doctorates in the fields dealing with the issues on which they were interviewed. Rather, most of them have doctorates in philosophy or theology, and perhaps undergraduate degrees in a related science. Strobel clearly meant to insinuate that he picked doctorate-level experts in the fields dealing with the issues they were interviewed about; but, with a few exceptions, this is not the case. This does not bode well for his claim of standing “in the shoes of the skeptic.”
Further, the opinions expressed by his experts are minority opinions in their fields. Of course, minority opinions can and do become majority opinions. But if you are conducting an investigation concerning a particular field of study, you don’t simply interview those with minority opinions and treat their opinions as representative of that field. This provides further evidence that Strobel’s pretense of playing the skeptic is a complete farce. Even disregarding everything else I say in this review, Strobel’s masquerade as a skeptic should arouse the suspicion that there is more to the story than Strobel would have you to believe.
Clearly, even if Strobel’s experts are biased, they are not necessarily wrong. But given their obvious bias, considering other sources with different points of view is necessary for objectivity.
Before I review the key arguments of each of Strobel’s experts, it is important to note that I am not an expert in any of their respective fields. Consequently, like Strobel, I rely on the authority of others who are qualified to address the relevant issues. The reader may suspect that experts on both sides of an issue are biased, and thus be unsure of who to believe. But when the arguments of both sides are compared, it seems to me that the arguments against Strobel’s position are clearly the stronger ones. I leave it to the reader to decide whether my judgment is warranted here.
I have tried to pick online sources for most of my references for the reader’s easy access. I also hope to pique my readers’ interest in the specific articles I cite. Occasionally, where I did not find a good online source, I reference books. Additional readings on these topics can be found in the “Further Readings” section at the end of this paper.
Though I rely on qualified authorities in my assessment, I naturally offer my own opinions on why the arguments offered by Strobel’s experts fall short of compelling. But my opinions should not be accepted at face value over any expert in their respective field—including Strobel’s experts. My opinions are offered only as “food for thought.”
One final note: In this latest apologetic, Strobel’s experts take an “Old Earth” perspective. This is implicit in the references to events like the Big Bang or Cambrian Explosion in most of the interviews. This is important because, in my view, “Young Earth” proponents make a good case that the Bible is oriented toward a “Young Earth.” Attempts to reconcile an old Earth with the Bible, such as those offered by Hugh Ross, are not compelling. (Critiques of such Old Earth arguments are available from Young Earth organizations.) Moreover, in his earlier work, The Case for Faith, Strobel seemed to accept both Young and Old Earth arguments arbitrarily, as they suited his purposes. For example, The Case for Faith quotes Dr. Norman Geisler claiming that carnivorous animals didn’t exist until after the fall of man—but that position is incompatible with an old Earth theology. Despite this apparent change in position, in The Case for a Creator Strobel makes no effort to explain how an old Earth can be reconciled with the Bible.
Doubts about Darwinism
An Interview with Jonathan Wells
For the “Doubts about Darwinism” chapter, Strobel did interview a doctorate in a field relevant to the subject matter of the chapter. The interviewee, Dr. Jonathan Wells, has a doctorate in molecular biology from the University of California, Berkeley. But there is more to Wells’ story than Strobel lets on. Though Strobel reveals in a footnote that Wells is a member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (the “Moonies”), he fails to mention that Moon funded Wells’ doctoral studies for the express purpose of “destroying Darwinism.” In “Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.,” Wells writes:
Father’s [Sun Myung Moon’s] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.
I don’t point this out in order to commit the classic ad hominem fallacy of attacking the person instead of his arguments, since I will address his arguments in a moment. But Wells’ motivation is certainly material to the claims that Strobel has made for his book. Imagine if an atheist wrote a book touted as a legitimate investigation into Christianity in which doctorates in Christian theology were interviewed, but failed to mention that one of his experts explicitly stated that he chose to pursue a doctorate in theology in order to “destroy Christianity.” Certainly that would be relevant to assessing the impartiality of the expert chosen to represent a particular discipline.
So what of Wells’ arguments? In fact, he trots out some worn-out potshots against evolutionary theory. Though both creationists and evolutionists accuse each other of defending long-disproven claims, Wells’ arguments make me confident that creationists (or at least Wells and his supporters) are the guilty party here. For example, Wells argues that the archaeopteryx cannot be a transitional form because the most bird-like reptilian ancestors are found “millions of years later in the fossil record,” and then exclaims “The missing link is still missing!” (p. 57) This displays a complete lack of understanding of evolutionary theory and what would be reasonable to expect of the fossil record.
According to our best estimates, there are somewhere between a few million to hundreds of millions of species alive today. We don’t know anything about many of these species, let alone about every species that has ever existed! The number of species that have ever existed on Earth is probably in the billions. Yet we’ve only found a handful of archaeopteryx fossils, and certainly have never seen one alive. Is it really that surprising that we don’t have an exact chronology of what species came before it and what came after it?
As noted, Wells expressed shock that the archaeopteryx could be considered evidence for evolution if other reptilian ancestors that resemble birds are found millions of years later. This is akin to a common question novice evolutionary skeptics ask: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” While Wells does not ask this specifically, he does ask a related question. If I may paraphrase, Wells essentially asks: “If the archaeopteryx evolved from reptiles, why did bird-like reptilian ancestors exist millions of years later?” Since both questions arise from the same misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, I will address them together.
First, man did not “evolve from monkeys”; rather, both modern monkeys and man evolved from a common primate ancestor. If we could watch this speciation unfold, the primates which eventually evolved into man would barely be perceptibly different than those that evolved into apes. And each parent species would have branched into other descendent species. Some of those descendent species might have produced modern descendents, such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and so on, while others died out, like the Neanderthals.
Evolutionary skeptics often seem to think that one species evolves into another in a linear fashion, each one replacing its predecessor. But evolution is more like a tree that keeps branching and branching—except that the evolutionary tree literally has billions of branches. Each branch evolves at its own rate, depending on the environment. Some branches don’t change very much or very fast. A life form that finds a successful niche in the ecosystem doesn’t need to change much. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that life forms that exist at one time might resemble earlier life forms, whether we are considering hominids or bird-like reptiles.
As already noted, Dr. Wells claims that the archaeopteryx couldn’t be a “missing link.” Most scientists abhor this misleading term, as it erroneously implies that there should always be intermediates between modern species. But there is no “missing link,” for instance, between man and apes because man did not evolve from apes. Moreover, while there are innumerable intermediate species between human beings and the common ancestor we share with apes, we couldn’t possibly enumerate all of them, and thus in this sense there will always be “missing links” even if evolution is true. Thus the term “missing link” can only reasonably describe a rather large gap in the evolutionary tree of a particular modern species.
Wells appears to claim that archaeopteryx isn’t a missing link because it doesn’t fill an alleged gap between dinosaurs (or reptiles) and modern birds. That is correct: the archaeopteryx is not considered a direct ancestor of modern birds. But, as already noted, finding direct-line ancestry is not expected. We don’t even have knowledge of all of the species alive today, let alone of all the species that have ever existed.
In fact, of the billions of species that have ever existed, only a very small percentage have direct modern descendants. Thus the majority of fossil finds are of species that don’t have direct modern descendants. Moreover, the farther back in time we look, the more likely it is for fossils to be of species that have no direct modern descendants. It is therefore not surprising, and even expected, that fossils of animals like archaeopteryx do not have direct modern descendants.
Because archaeopteryx isn’t a direct ancestor of modern birds, it doesn’t constitute “proof” that modern birds evolved from reptiles. But science aims for the best explanation of the evidence, and archaeopteryx is evidence that transitional types of organisms existed. And finding transitional types of organisms is exactly what we would expect if evolution is true.
At one point in the interview, Strobel asks Wells if archaeopteryx is a “half-bird, half-reptile,” and Wells responds: “No, not even close. It is a bird with modern feathers, and birds are very different from reptiles in many important ways—their breeding system, their bone structure, their lungs and distribution of weight and muscles. It’s a bird, that’s clear—not part bird and part reptile” (p. 57). While archaeopteryx does have bird-like features, Wells completely ignores its reptilian characteristics. In “All About Archaeopteryx“, Dr. Chris Nedin lists twenty-three notable characteristics of the archaeopteryx. Of them, four are ornithological characteristics, such as the feathers. But the other nineteen are more reptilian. For example, the archaeopteryx has teeth, while no modern bird does. Also, the archaeopteryx does not have a beak, while all modern birds do. This leads Dr. Nedin to the following conclusion:
It can be seen that Archae possesses many more characters which are present in dinosaurs and not in birds, than it does characters which are present in birds but not in dinosaurs. This is why Archae is a true transitional species, because it shares some characters which are diagnostic of one group whilst still retaining characters diagnostic of its ancestral group. Anyone who claims that Archae is 100% bird is wrong. Anyone who claims that Archae’s skeleton is even predominantly bird-like is wrong. Anyone who claims Archae has a “totally birdlike” skull is wrong.
Strobel then claims that regardless of whether archaeopteryx is or isn’t a transitional fossil, it is at best “a whisper of protest to the fossil record’s deafening roar against classical Darwinism” (p. 58). He then quotes Phillip Johnson: “A single good candidate for ancestor status is not enough to save a theory that posits a worldwide history of continual evolutionary transformation.” Here Strobel isn’t even quoting an expert. Phillip Johnson is a lawyer, not a biologist, and he has no credentials in any biological field. Johnson is simply wrong. Zoologist Kathleen Hunt has written an extensive article on transitional fossils, the “Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ.”
Though intended for the layperson, the detail of Hunt’s article—which lists hundreds of transitional fossils—can be tedious for the average person at times. Most people have never heard of fossils like the paleothyris, the protoclepsydrops, the clepsydrops, the varanops, the haptodus, and the biarmosuchia, to mention half-a-dozen of the hundreds of fossils Hunt describes. That the average person knows nothing of these species allows Strobel and Johnson to assure the faithful that they don’t exist.
Hunt not only readily concedes that there are gaps in the fossil record, but explains why they are inevitable:
To demonstrate anything about how a species arose, whether it arose gradually or suddenly, you need exceptionally complete strata, with many dead animals buried under constant, rapid sedimentation. This is rare for terrestrial animals. Even the famous Clark’s Fork (Wyoming) site, known for its fine Eocene mammal transitions, only has about one fossil per lineage about every 27,000 years. Luckily, this is enough to record most episodes of evolutionary change (provided that they occurred at Clark’s Fork Basin and not somewhere else), though it misses the most rapid evolutionary bursts.
And yet despite genuine gaps in the fossil record, there are still thousands and thousands of transitional fossils. Archaeopteryx is not some mere “whisper of protest,” and there is no “deafening roar against classical Darwinism” in the fossil record.
Wells also takes some pot shots at the study of human evolution. It is true that some scientists have jumped to erroneous conclusions, and even been taken in by some frauds. But Well’s depiction of Java Man is not accurate. He approvingly quotes Hank Hanegraaff as follows: “What is not so well known is that Java man consists of nothing more than a skullcap, a femur, three teeth, and a great deal of imagination” (p. 61). Actually, the teeth and femur once attributed to Java Man do not belong to that specimen. The only part of Java Man that exists is a partial skull. It would be nice if we had more, but we have what we have. But what we do have of Java Man is neither a modern man nor a modern ape. The skull is too large for an ape, but too different in shape to be from a human. Java Man is likely a Homo Erectus, and there are other specimens of Homo Erectus.
Wells also claims that common descent (that all life evolved from a single ancestor) “is a very, very shaky hypothesis” (p. 46). Of course, this is news to most biologists. Even Dr. Behe, who is interviewed for a later chapter, concedes common descent. For discussion of the issue of common descent, I will refer to Dr. Douglas Theobald’s “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent.” Although the article is technical in nature, it is for the most part readable by the layperson.
Common descent is not actually necessary for evolutionary theory to be true, though it is sufficient to demonstrate evolution. There is no fundamental reason that there couldn’t be multiple evolutionary trees existing concurrently. And it is certainly possible that we may discover some terrestrial life form that evolved completely independently of the rest. But current evidence indicates that this has not happened; rather, all life on Earth appears to have had a single common ancestor. Theobald’s article lists many independent lines of evidence for common descent. One of the most compelling lines of evidence comes from DNA sequencing:
Thousands of new species are discovered yearly, and new DNA and protein sequences are determined daily from previously unexamined species (Wilson 1992, Ch. 8). At the current rate, which is increasing exponentially, over 20,000 new sequences are deposited at GenBank every day, amounting to over 34 million new bases sequenced every day. Each and every one is a test of the theory of common descent. When I first wrote these words in 1999, the rate was less than one tenth what it is today (in 2004), and we now have 20 times the amount of DNA sequenced.
No doubt Wells would argue that such evidence only demonstrates “common design”—that the Intelligent Designer happened to use similar designs for his creations. Though this is theoretically possible, it is not likely; as Dr. Theobold notes, vestigial structures reveal a genealogical history. For example, whales have been found with feet! The existence of such vestigial structures appears to be inconsistent with the Creation model: Why would God’s designs appear to show a history of change over time?
As Hunt points out in the “Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ” referenced above, other evidence from the fossil record is inconsistent with the Creation model:
Literal creationism won’t fly, but could the concept of “separately created kinds” still be viable, with the creations occurring over millions of years? This would require the following convoluted adjustments:
First, if every “kind”, (species, genus, family, whatever) was separately created, there must have been innumerable successive and often simultaneous waves of creation, occurring across several hundred million years, including thousands of creations of now-extinct groups.
Second, these thousands of “kinds” were created in a strictly correlated chronological/morphological sequence, in a nested hierarchy. That is, virtually no “kind” was created until a similar “kind” already existed. For instance, for the reptile-to-mammal transition, God must have created at least 30 genera in nearly perfect morphological order, with the most reptilian first and the most mammalian last, and with only relatively slight morphological differences separating each successive genus. Similarly, God created legged whales before he created legless whales, and Archaeopteryx before creating modern birds. He created small five-toed horse-like creatures before creating medium-sized three-toed horses, which in turn were created before larger one-toed horses. And so on.
Though Hunt concludes that this is not fatal to the creationist theory, it certainly does not look like any Creation theory that any Christian I know of proposes.
Wells goes on to argue that the “Cambrian Explosion,” a period roughly 540 million years ago infamous for its apparently rapid evolution, contradicts Darwinian evolution:
[Darwin’s] theory predicts a long history of gradual divergence from a common ancestor, with the differences slowly becoming bigger and bigger until you get the major differences we have now. The fossil evidence, even in his day, showed the opposite: the rapid appearance of phylum-level differences in what’s called the ‘Cambrian Explosion.’… Fossil discoveries over the last hundred and fifty years have turned his tree upside down by showing the Cambrian Explosion was even more abrupt and extensive than scientists once thought (p. 43).
Some of what Wells says about the Cambrian era is correct: For example, that single-celled organisms existed for over two billion years before the Cambrian Explosion, and that higher orders of animals (such as mammals) came after it. Even if we took all of Wells’ statements at face value, we would still get a very different picture than what we get from the Bible, where man is in the Garden of Eden with God’s new creation. Young-Earth proponents would not accept Wells’ acknowledgement that death and carnivorous animals existed long before man, rather than as a result of man’s disobedience.
That said, Wells’ depiction of the Cambrian Explosion should not be taken at face value. Even with Wells’ concessions, many readers probably get the impression that the life forms that lived during the Cambrian Explosion were roughly the same as today—but nothing could be further from the truth. Prior to the Cambrian Explosion, skeletal systems had not yet evolved. But by the end of the period, simple skeletal systems had evolved. Yet even late Cambrian organisms were very different from modern life forms. No land plants, birds, reptiles, mammals, or primates existed during the Cambrian Explosion. Even the dinosaurs didn’t appear until several hundred million years later. So it is certainly not as if life as we now know it suddenly appeared during the Cambrian Explosion, which is the impression that Wells may have given some readers. It is worth repeating, there were no flowering plants, no land plants, no birds, no reptiles, no mammals during the Cambrian period.
Wells argues that transitional life forms never existed at all, which makes his discussion of the Cambrian Explosion all the more ironic: The Cambrian Explosion was nothing but the introduction of transitional life forms! For example, trilobites appeared in the Cambrian Explosion, and are now extinct, but are the ancestors of some modern arthropods.
TalkOrigins has a short article on the issue of the Cambrian Explosion, “Claim CC300: Complex life forms appear suddenly in the Cambrian Explosion, with no ancestral fossils.” It is true that the Cambrian Explosion was indeed a period of rapid evolution. Nevertheless, much evolution occurred before the Cambrian Explosion, and much occurred afterward. From the TalkOrigins article:
Only some phyla appear in the Cambrian explosion. In particular, all plants post-date the Cambrian, and flowering plants, by far the dominant form of land life today, only appeared about 140 Mya [Million years ago].
Even among animals, not all types appear in the Cambrian. Cnidarians, sponges, and probably other phyla appeared before the Cambrian. Molecular evidence shows that at least six animal phyla are Precambrian. Bryozoans appear first in the Ordovician. Many other soft-bodied phyla don’t appear in the fossil record until much later. Although many new animal forms appeared during the Cambrian, not all did. According to one reference, 11 of 32 metazoan phyla appear during the Cambrian, one appears Precambrian, 8 after the Cambrian, and 12 have no fossil record.
And that just considers phyla. Almost none of the animal groups that people think of as groups, such as mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and spiders, appeared in the Cambrian. The fish that appeared in the Cambrian [were] unlike any fish alive today.
Strobel’s interview with Wells essentially constitutes a “Cliff Notes” version of Wells’ book, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong. Curiously, Strobel does not seem to have read Wells’ book, for he expresses shock and dismay at Wells’ responses to his questions—responses that would’ve been predictable if he had read Wells’ book. Further, while Strobel tries to give the impression that he is prepared for his interviews by bringing up relevant counterarguments, he seems to be totally unaware of criticisms of Wells’ work available prior to the April 2004 publication of The Case for a Creator. At best, he is totally unprepared for the interview; at worst, he is being deceptive about his knowledge of Wells’ work and its criticisms.
At least two comprehensive critiques of Wells’ arguments predate the publication of The Case for a Creator: Alan D. Gishlick’s “Icons of Evolution? Why Much of What Jonathan Wells Writes About Evolution is Wrong” at the National Center for Science Education website, and by Nick Matzke’s “Icons of Obfuscation” at the online TalkOrigins Archive. In sum, these critiques make the following observations about the “icons” which I haven’t yet addressed:
- The Miller-Urey experiments: despite Wells’ claims to the contrary, experiments that use current estimates of atmospheric conditions of the prebiotic era do not appreciably change the results.
- Darwin’s tree of life: Phylogenetic trees are actually strong evidence for common descent (see also “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution“).
- Homology: Wells’ charge that homology (the study of structural similarities between different species produced by common descent) rests upon a “circular argument” stems from his misunderstanding the subject.
- Haeckel’s embryos: Haeckel’s embryos were indeed fraudulent, but they are irrelevant, as they play no role in in modern evolutionary theory.
- Peppered moths: Contrary to Wells, the observed adaptation to the environment by peppered moths provides sound evidence for evolution.
- Darwin’s finches: The Galápagos finches are a good example of “adaptive radiation,” when a common ancestor diversifies into different species as it radiates into different ecological niches.
In part, Gishlick’s critique concludes: “The scholarship of Icons is substandard and the conclusions of the book are unsupported. In fact, despite his touted scientific credentials, Wells doesn’t produce a single piece of original research to support his position.”
The theme of this chapter is a discussion of how science and religion relate to each other. Does science support religion, disprove religion, or are they totally separate fields? Some people argue that science and religion cover totally separate domains—“non-overlapping magisteria,” or “NOMA” as Dr. Stephen J. Gould had termed it. However, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer argues that there are areas of common interest and concern between faith and science. Some of these areas, such as human origins, are discussed in more detail in other chapters.
Throughout the book Strobel’s interviewees claim that naturalism is the prevailing view among scientists not because that is where the evidence points, but because scientists are too biased to see the error of their ways. For example, Dr. Meyer claims that “The materialist worldview has exercised dominance on intellectual life in western culture for a hundred and fifty years. It has become the default worldview in science, philosophy and academia in general. It’s presupposed” (p. 84).
An obvious question arises: Even if we suppose that scientists are biased toward naturalism, are Intelligent Design proponents any less biased against it? Strobel paraphrases a skeptic’s suspicions: “Almost all the people he sees in the Intelligent Design movement are Christians. Doesn’t that undermine the legitimacy of their science?” Meyer responds that “Every scientist has a motive, but motives are irrelevant to the assessing the validity of scientific theories. You have to respond to the evidence that’s being offered regardless of who offers it or why” (p. 85). What sort of double standard is this? Why does Strobel find it acceptable for Meyer to malign the motives of those promoting the “default worldview in science,” only to turn around and state that motives are irrelevant when those who share his view are considered?
Meyer tries to make a case for a naturalistic “conspiracy theory” played out by scientists. Attempting to bolster his case, Strobel notes that a study showed that 60% of scientists disbelieve in God or are doubtful. But that still leaves 40% that do believe in God. That would seem to leave a sufficiently large number of theistic scientists to defeat any naturalistic conspiracy at work.
Like many of Strobel’s other experts, Meyer claims that the “tide is turning”—that the conclusiveness of the evidence for God is so overwhelming that the “naturalistic worldview” is being overthrown while theism percolates throughout the scientific community. But it is one thing to say that there are theistic scientists, and another to say that theism is prevalent among scientists, or that there is a reversal of the trend away from theism among top scientists. Strobel did note that belief in God is lowest among the most elite scientists. In Has Science Found God? Dr. Victor Stenger notes the following:
A recent survey of the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) indicates that only 7 percent believe in a personal god. This is dramatically down from 27.7 percent in 1913, and 15 percent in 1933. Personal disbelief, as distinguished from simple nonbelief, among the NAS group now stands at 72.2 percent and doubt or agnosticism at 20.8 percent. Disbelief among physical scientists stands the highest, at 79 percent.
Other surveys, however, suggest the religiosity of academic scientists as a whole is not much lower than that of the general public. Apparently, unbelief among the nation’s science elite is higher than that of the more general population of scientists teaching in U.S. colleges.
Why would nonbelief be highest among the most elite scientists? Meyer might say that the most elite scientists are the most steeped in the “default worldview of science” he maligned; but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for such a claim. He also claims that “the best evidence for theism is very new” and that “it takes time for new discoveries to percolate.” But wouldn’t the most elite scientists be the very persons “in the loop” on these great discoveries? Wouldn’t they be the first to endorse theism if the scientific evidence for it was so strong?
Before I move on, I want to say just a bit more about the “science elite.” I fear this might elicit images of snobbish scientists looking down with disdain upon the common person. One persuasive strategy of The Case for a Creator is to portray Strobel’s panel of experts as being smart, yet accessible. He wants the reader to feel his experts are more trustworthy because they can “speak to the common person” without speaking down to him. I don’t doubt that some scientists among the “science elite” relate poorly to the layperson; some are better than others. In any case, a persuasive speaker can obviously be wrong. And while it is certainly possible for the majority of scientists to be wrong on a particular subject, contrary to popular opinion, it just doesn’t happen that often. If the vast majority of “elite” scientists don’t find the “scientific” case for a Creator compelling, there is probably a good reason for that. Strobel and company dismiss them far too easily with the uncorroborated assertion that “they are just biased.”
Strobel then turns to a discussion of methodological naturalism in science. Methodological naturalists hold that science should exclude the miraculous from scientific explanations of certain events or phenomena because a supernatural explanation is a “scientific dead-end,” to quote Strobel’s skeptic. But Meyer counters this claim: “If you say, ‘we’re only going to let you consider answers that involve materialistic processes,’ then that shuts down inquiry because one of the possible causal explanations [is not considered]” (pp. 85-86). This certainly sounds reasonable, particularly to those sympathetic to the reality of the miraculous. Why shouldn’t all possibilities, naturalistic and supernaturalistic, be considered in a scientific investigation? Meyer says: “I don’t think it’s right to invoke a self-serving rule that says only naturalistic explanations can be considered in science. Let’s have a new period in the history of science where we have methodological rules that actually foster the unfettered seeking of truth” (p. 86).
This is a common argument, and at first blush, it sounds reasonable: Why shouldn’t all possibilities be considered when seeking the truth? But whether or not the supernatural exists, there are legitimate reasons for excluding supernaturalistic explanations from scientific investigations. For example, the scientist’s tools are only useful for investigating the natural world. There are no scientific tools for measuring or quantifying the miraculous. Moreover, the bedrock of science is to be able to make testable predictions that can be verified by independent observers; but supernatural explanations are rarely testable. This is not merely a naturalistic bias, as Strobel and Meyer would argue; it is simply a statement of fact.
No doubt Meyer would argue that the miraculous should only be considered once naturalistic explanations have sufficiently been discounted. Dr. William Lane Craig makes a similar argument in Strobel’s The Case for Faith. But how can one ever sufficiently discount all possible naturalistic explanations? How does one determine that no naturalistic explanation is possible, and thus a supernaturalistic one is required? I suspect that Meyer would say that appealing to supernaturalistic explanations is warranted only when naturalistic explanations are preposterously unlikely. But how do we determine that? Consider an ordinary laptop computer. A person unfamiliar with modern technology, who had never seen a computer before, would be very hard pressed not to find it “miraculous.” Such a person would probably conclude that all conceivable naturalistic explanations for its existence are so unlikely that it just must have a supernatural origin. So the apparent lack of a naturalistic explanation for an event or phenomena is not sufficient reason to discount that an unknown naturalistic explanation exists.
Because Dr. Meyer’s interview is a brief introduction to the topics of the remaining chapters, I will defer to the relevant chapters before commenting on most of those topics. But I want to briefly discuss one of Dr. Meyer’s claims here. When he introduces the cosmological argument (the subject of the next chapter), he argues that the Big Bang shows that the universe was created “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. According to Arno Penzias, a Nobel Laureate Meyer proceeds to quote: “The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted had I nothing to go on but the first five books of the Bible, the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole” (p. 77). Oh, please. Genesis 1:2 refers to earth as being formless and void, which some have claimed implies creation “ex nihilo” through the Big Bang. But what a stretch! Genesis 1 also says that God created the earth on the first day, plants on the second day, and the sun, moon and stars on the third day. This antiquated story doesn’t even remotely look like Big Bang cosmology.
What Meyer is doing here is sometimes called “postdiction” (as opposed to “prediction”). Postdiction is reading new knowledge into an old writing, and reinterpreting the old writing as being predictive. A clear indication that someone is engaging in postdiction is that his “predictions” were never recognized as such before the fact. Nobody, prior to the scientific discovery of the Big Bang, predicted Big Bang cosmology by reading the Bible. Nor does the Biblical account even remotely coincide with Big Bang theory.
Meyer concludes with some personal thoughts about how his belief in God has impacted his life. Though I’m not about to argue over his personal feelings, one of his comments is worth noting here. When discussing what he perceives as God’s actions, he writes: “I see this not only in cosmology and biology, but also in the historical revelation of the Bible, principally in the revelation of Jesus Christ himself. He is so compelling! Einstein thought so” (p. 90). As it so happens, Einstein sometimes spoke in pantheistic terms, attributing godlike qualities to the universe. However, he was annoyed by people who used his words to paint him as a theist:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
Prior to the interview on cosmology, Strobel says that he wants to find “hard facts”:
I wasn’t interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them (p. 95).
And in order to obtain the “hard facts of mathematics” and the “cold data of cosmology,” Strobel interviewed Dr. Craig, who doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree in mathematics or cosmology! Dr. Craig’s credentials are purely in theology and philosophy. While Dr. Craig is indeed qualified to publish on related topics, such as the philosophy of science, he is not among the first people one should approach with questions about mathematics and cosmology—unless one already has an underlying agenda.
Dr. Craig is a well-known proponent of the cosmological argument, which claims that the universe must have been created by God. Since the physics Craig appeals to is beyond my expertise, I’m not going to attempt to produce a complete naturalistic explanation for the universe. But I will offer several good reasons to conclude that Dr. Craig does not make his case.
Of course, Dr. Craig is aware of one of the more obvious objections to the cosmological argument: If the universe requires a Creator, why doesn’t God require a Creator as well? Craig argues that only things that begin to exist require a cause (i.e., a creator), and since God has always existed, he does not require a cause. Since the universe began with a Big Bang, however, it must have had a cause. Is this argument sound? Although a detailed examination of this argument is beyond the scope of this review, I will address some of its deficiencies and provide references for further research. But first, note that it is quite convenient for Craig that the universe “happens” to require a cause on his account, while at the same time God is exempt from this requirement. This certainly smacks of an ad hoc argument designed to reach a predetermined conclusion.
Perhaps more importantly, Craig’s argument is unfalsifiable: there is no practical way to test his hypothesis. Because it fails to make testable predictions, the argument reduces to mere philosophical speculation. If it were presented as a philosophical argument, this would not be an issue; but Craig presents the argument as if it were a scientific one.
But fundamentally, the cosmological argument is motivated by the question: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” This is, indeed, the most imponderable of imponderables. But the cosmological argument, even if sound, cannot answer it. For even if God did create the universe, God is still a very big something, and we are still left with the question: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Craig’s argument that a something without beginning (God) requires no cause is a tacit admission that there is no answer for why something exists instead of nothing.
Moreover, suppose that “something” does exist without cause. Is there any reason to believe that God is the original “something” or “First Cause?” Here Craig argues that the universe must have been created by a free will, and thus the First Cause must be a mind of some sort. But again, this idea cannot be tested. Moreover, Craig maintains that this will is both omniscient (all-knowing) and capable of making free decisions. But these concepts seem to be incompatible. For example, if I am deciding between tea and coffee for lunch, there is some period of time where I do not know if I will have tea or coffee. But if I was omniscient, there would never be a time when I did not know if I was going to have tea or coffee. How can I make a decision if there is no time when I do not already know what the decision will be?
Similarly, Craig depicts God as being outside of time, or “timeless.” Yet he depicts God’s creation in a stepwise, time-based fashion: there is a “time” before the universe exists, then God “decides” to create the universe, and then the universe pops into existence. This series of events appears to be inconsistent with God being “timeless.” Although these sorts of philosophical arguments are not conclusive, they certainly are no less compelling than those offered by Dr. Craig.
Finally, Craig and Strobel discuss naturalistic theories of the origin of the universe, including the theory that universes are generated in a great “quantum vacuum” outside of our universe. On this theory, Craig says, “we have to ask, well, what is the origin of the whole quantum vacuum itself. Where does it come from?” (p. 101). But Craig has already said that things that don’t have a beginning don’t require a cause. And if the existence of God doesn’t require a cause or explanation, who is Craig to say that a quantum vacuum does? Of course, the quantum vacuum theory may or may not be true—but Dr. Craig can’t justifiably demand an origin for a quantum vacuum while exempting God from one.
While introducing Dr. Robin Collins’ qualifications for the interview on physics, Strobel mentions that Collins “entered a doctoral program in physics at the University of Texas in Austin” (p. 129), but conveniently neglects to mention that he didn’t finish that program. Dr. Collins’ only doctorate, in fact, is in philosophy, though he does have undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics. I don’t mean to imply that Collins cannot reason intelligently about matters of physics; but he should not be considered a fully qualified expert on physics. And failing to note that Collins did not complete his doctorate in physics clearly slants Collins’ qualifications in order to bolster Strobel’s case.
Strobel’s interview with Collins concerns the “fine-tuning argument” and anthropic principle. The fine-tuning argument contends that the physical constants and laws of our universe seem to be finely tuned to allow life as we know it, and therefore must have been designed by an intelligent being. And it is indeed amazing that the universe and life exists at all. Doesn’t our very existence point to God? I used to think so, but no longer do. Let me explain why by citing my my critique of The Case for Faith, where I develop the following thought experiment:
Imagine that you do not know that the proverbial “life, the universe, and everything” exists at all. Then define some characteristics that happen to be consistent with the universe: current laws of physics; countless galaxies, each with billions of stars; and at least one planet with many forms of life, including one self-aware animal known as man. Calculate the following probabilities:
The defined universe comes into existence via purely natural means, and evolutionary processes eventually lead to the origin of the animal known as man.
A God powerful enough to create the defined universe and all life forms (including man) exists, and decides to create this universe.
In neither case can you really find a formula to calculate the probability. Moreover, if such formulas did exist, either case would surely be rendered extremely improbable. A very small probability for option 1 would not increase the probability of option 2, and vice versa. Indeed, if God’s motives and dispositions are as inscrutable as many theists would have us believe, how could we possibly have any idea whatsoever how likely option 2 would be?
Option 1 has many subcomponents, some of which may be calculable to some degree (though the mathematical validity of most attempts to do so is highly suspect). By contrast, option 2 has no subcomponents whose probability could be calculated. This creates the illusion that option 1 is astronomically improbable whereas option 2 is not. But, in fact, there is no method for determining the probability of option 2 at all.
Moreover, the mere fact that option 1 has many subparts may lead one to believe that it is less likely. One might think that option 2 appears to have a low probability, but it only involves one improbable thing—God. Option 1, by contrast, might appear to involve one improbable thing after another in order to bring about the existence of human beings. But the apparent simplicity of God is also an illusion; if God really exists and created the universe, he must be a very complex being.
Though we can’t measure or quantify what forces God might have employed to create the universe, what if we could? Consider the following. Apologist Hugh Ross believes that the discovery of ten or more dimensions, as predicted by string theory, would be an important discovery about the nature of God. God, he claims, operates “extra-dimensionally.” But what is the probability that there is a being capable of operating “extra-dimensionally”? And suppose that science could tell us more about the nature of God? Wouldn’t option 2 also take on the appearance of “one improbable thing after another”? Giving God “carte blanche” to be or do anything creates the illusion that option 2 is a far simpler explanation than option 1. But it really is not.
I’ve coined a phrase to describe the “fine-tuning” argument. I call it the “astonishment index.” People find the universe, well, astonishing—and rightly so. It is quite amazing that it exists. And the “fine-tuning” argument seems to argue that the more astonishing the universe is, the more unlikely it is to exist without a creator. Thus, Collins seems to be saying that the probability of the universe existing without cause is inversely proportional to the astonishment index. But no matter how high the universe ranks on the astonishment index, God must rank even higher. So the probability that God has no creator must be even lower than the probability that there is no creator of the universe!
Consider the following example offered by Craig [in Strobel’s The Case for Faith]: “Dr. Stephen Hawking has calculated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed into a fireball” (p. 77). No doubt this ranks pretty high on the astonishment index; I can see how someone might conclude that the fact that we exist at all points to an intelligent designer. Yet when one contemplates how much power and intelligence would be required to design or control the universe with such precision, it seems that an intelligent designer must rank even higher on the astonishment index. Again, no matter how high the universe ranks on the astonishment index, God must rank even higher. Thus, if the probability of the universe’s existence is exceedingly low given the astonishment index, then the probability of God’s existence would seem to be even lower.
Returning to Strobel’s interview, after discussing some multiple universe or “multiverse” theories with Collins, Strobel proceeds to confess that “I found myself agreeing with the iconoclastic Gregg Easterbrook,” whom he then quotes as saying: “The multiverse idea rests on assumptions that would be laughed out of town if they came from a religious text” (p. 144). Yet in the introduction to this book, Strobel said that he would “stand in the shoes of the skeptic” and follow the evidence wherever it leads (p. 28). Given the overt bias evident in such ridicule, however, it is hardly surprising that Strobel comes to the conclusions that he does.
Collins maintains that a theory is more likely to be true if it is a “natural extrapolation” from what we already know (p. 145). According to Collins, however, multiverse theories require conjecture that does not constitute a natural extrapolation from what we know. Moreover, the concept of a mind capable of designing things is easy to conceive, and hence the idea of a great mind that can fine-tune the universe is a natural extrapolation.
Collins’ line of reasoning is flawed in several ways. First, we know that one universe exists. Aren’t multiple universes a natural extrapolation of our knowledge of one universe? Second, our scientific picture of the world (encompassing the biological nature of minds) does not include disembodied spirits capable of thinking “finely tuned universes” into existence, making Collins’ appeal to natural extrapolation unbelievable. Finally, it is simply disingenuous to argue that the validity of multiverse theories depends on whether they seem like natural extrapolations or not. Plenty of things in physics are counterintuitive. Should we discount the validity of quantum mechanics because it does not seem to be a “natural extrapolation” of everything else that we know?
Granted, even slight changes in our physical laws and constants would make life as we know it impossible. But that doesn’t take into account that different laws and constants could produce different sorts of life. If we could run experiments, picking random laws and constants and generating universes based on them, probably very few universes would generate life. And if that’s true, Collin is right to say that our existence is improbable. But Collins cannot honestly say that it is any less probable than a creator who willed the universe into existence, as there is no way for him to know that.
The Evidence from Astronomy: The Privileged Planet
An Interview with Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards
In the chapter on astronomy, Strobel interviews the authors of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. Their book concerns the “rare Earth hypothesis” (REH), popularized in Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. According to the REH, conditions favorable to intelligent life are extremely rare in the universe. Though Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez and Dr. Jay Wesley Richards do not speculate on whether Earth is the only planet with intelligent life in the universe, they do argue that intelligent life is at best extremely rare. Dr. Gonzalez argues:
We’ve found that our location in the universe, in our galaxy, in our solar system, as well as such things as the size and rotation of the Earth, the mass of the moon and sun and so forth—a whole range of factors—conspire together in an amazing way to make Earth a habitable planet (p. 164).
Although Dr. Gonzalez has a doctorate in astronomy, his position is clearly a minority opinion in his field, and the REH is not accepted by most astrobiologists. In Life Everywhere: the Maverick Science of Astrobiology by David Darling, NASA Ames astrobiologist Chris McKay explains why: “We have only one example of life, and the assessment of the probability for the development of life is uncertain at best.” Darling adds that “What matters is not whether there’s anything unusual about the Earth—there’s going to be something idiosyncratic about every planet in space. What matters is whether any of Earth’s [unique] circumstances are not only unusual, but also essential for complex life. So far we’ve seen nothing to suggest that there is” (op. cit., p. 103).
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the REH is true. How would this potential fact provide evidence that God exists? At first blush, the special conditions we find on Earth might appear to point to a designer who had a special interest in human life and so wanted to bring about precisely those conditions. But then other features of the universe would seem to make this hypothesis unlikely. If life, particularly human life, is the Designer’s prime interest—his crowning achievement, as it were—then why did he bother to create billions of other galaxies that are completely lifeless?
Dr. Gonzalez and Dr. Jay Wesley Richards do try to provide some answer to this. They claim that Earth is not only uniquely suited for life, but also uniquely situated in the universe for exploration. Dr. Gonzalez writes:
Our location away form the galaxy’s center and in the flat plane of the disk provides us with a particularly privileged vantage point for observing both nearby and distant stars…. The very same conditions that allow for intelligent life on Earth make it strangely well-suited for viewing and analyzing the universe. And we suspect this is not an accident. In fact, we raise the question of whether the universe has literally been designed for discovery (p. 164).
In other words, God must have wanted us to see his grand creation. A fantastically huge universe was created merely for us to say, “Golly, look at that!” Considering that for thousands of years the most awe-inspiring parts of the cosmos were inaccessible to human beings because they are completely invisible to the naked eye, this claim is hardly credible.
There are billions of galaxies, most of which we’ll never know about. They have existed for billions of years, long before man or any other form of life. Did God create them so that a few astronomers might happen to see them? What percentage of human beings—or even just those fortunate enough to be educated—really knows much about astronomy? Dr. Gonzalez and Dr. Richards depict the universe as a play toy God created for a relative handful of astronomers.
In any case, evidence for the rare Earth hypothesis is weak. And if it is true despite the weakness of that evidence, it doesn’t seem particularly helpful to theism anyway.
The Evidence of Biochemistry: The Complexity of Molecular Machines
An Interview with Michael J. Behe
Dr. Michael J. Behe is the author of the popular book Darwin’s Black Box. The term “black box” refers to something with a defined function where the mechanism for performing that function is unknown. In his Case for a Creator interview, Dr. Behe illustrates this with the example of a computer, which many people use without any idea of how it actually works (p. 196). He then proceeds to argue that, for Darwin, the living cell was a black box—its functions were known, but how it performed those functions was not.
Of course, Darwin’s contemporaries didn’t have the technology to see into the inner workings of a cell. Dr. Behe argues that, for this very reason, they too quickly assumed that cells were simple mechanisms. Now that we see how complex the inner workings of a cell are, Dr. Behe argues that they could not have evolved by Darwinian evolution.
As noted earlier, although Dr. Wells argues against common descent in his early “Doubts About Darwinism” interview, Dr. Behe concedes it in his own Darwin’s Black Box, writing: “I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it” (op. cit., p. 5). On Dr. Behe’s account, an intelligent designer created the first cells, but let evolution take over from that point on. It is rather striking that Strobel makes no note of this stark difference between Wells and Dr. Behe, but he appears to be satisfied that they agree on the existence of an intelligent designer.
Dr. Behe’s main thesis raises a rather fundamental problem: If the cell was Darwin’s black box, then God (or the Intelligent Designer) is Dr. Behe’s Ultimate Black Box. God is a Black Box that can never be peered into. If God exists and performs miracles, how he performs miracles will always be a mystery. Thus there is something ironic about Dr. Behe criticizing Darwin’s contemporaries for presuming the simplicity of their black box, the living cell, when Dr. Behe himself presumes the simplicity of yet another black box (and an entirely hypothetical one at that), an intelligent designer.
Dr. Behe does have a doctorate in biochemistry, but again, his opinion is a minority one in his field. There are dozens of criticisms of Dr. Behe’s work available online and in print. In one online critique of Darwin’s Black Box, “A Biochemist’s Response to ‘The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution’“, David Ussery writes: “There are many places where, when the arguments presented can be put to the test, they fail miserably. For example, his insistence of the absence of literature about molecular evolution. This is easy to test, and see that what he is claiming is clearly wrong.” Ussery discusses each of the supposedly “irreducibly complex” systems Dr. Behe describes, concluding that none of them are really “irreducibly complex.” For example, on the evolution of the flagellum, he says:
As far as whether a partially functioning flagellum provides any benefit at all—experiments in which some of the proteins have been mutated show that the flagellum can still aid in swimming—but not as well. I would rather be able to partially swim away from my predator than to not swim at all. In fact, I’d stand a much better chance of not getting eaten by a shark if I was in a boat and had even a crude piece of wood to use as an oar, and my friend had nothing to paddle with at all! If I manage to survive, and am not eaten, then I can pass on my crude oar to my children, and so have established “selection.” My point is that a partially functioning flagella IS INDEED more useful than nothing at all. Once you allow for this, the idea of “irreducible complexity” loses its punch.
The Evidence of Biological Information: The Challenge of DNA and the Origin of Life
An Interview with Stephen C. Meyer
In the second interview with Dr. Meyer, a number of topics concerning DNA and the origin of life are discussed, even though Meyer’s doctorate is in philosophy and his undergraduate degree is in geology. He is not an expert on DNA or origin of life studies. Moreover, the first topic discussed concerns information theory, which is also outside of Dr. Meyer’s area of expertise.
It is little wonder, then, that Dr. Meyer simply reiterates the conclusions of Dr. William Dembski’s No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. My comments on this topic will be brief, as I am not well-versed in the mathematics of information theory. And while there are a number of online articles concerning information theory, they are not generally accessible. However, Dr. Victor J. Stenger’s Has Science Found God? (excerpted online) has a simple analogy for how information can arise from natural processes:
Suppose we have two bar magnets, one sitting on top of the other, as shown in figure 4.2(a). Because of their mutual attraction, only the two configurations shown, with either both north poles up or both south poles up, will be stable. This can be specified by one bit of Dembski information, say ID = 1 for north poles up and ID = 0 for both north poles down.
We open the window and a random breeze comes through and knocks the magnets apart. Assume they are constrained so they cannot fall on their sides but must always land vertically. Now, because the poles are no longer in contact, the four configurations shown in 4.2(b) are possible We then need two bits to describe the situation: ID = 11 for both north poles up, ID = 10 for the first north up and the second down, ID = 01 for the second north up and the first down, and ID = 00 for both north poles down. Thus, the information in the system has increased by one bit as the result of a chance process. (We would need even more bits to describe the possible orientations for the magnets on their sides.) In this example, then, Dembski information is generated by chance, in violation of Dembski’s law of conservation of information. Such a law cannot be found in the standard usages and practices within the field of information theory.
Fig. 4.2. Example of the generation of information by chance. The bar magnets in (a) sit in a weakly stable state that requires only one bit to describe, north poles up or north poles down. In (b), a random breeze has knocked the magnets free and they can land in four possible states shown that require two bits to describe. Thus chance has generated one bit of information, in violation of Dembski’s law of conservation of information.
Dr. Stenger’s magnet analogy may seem trivial, and perhaps not sufficient to explain how information on the scale of DNA can arise. But he is simply explaining how information can arise by purely natural means. And if a trivial example can show that Dembski’s law of conservation of information is false, then clearly it is no law at all.
Dr. Stenger’s book deals with information theory in a general sense, and does not directly deal with the generation of information within DNA. And at first glance, his magnet analogy may seem completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. But actually, something similar (though not quite as simple) happens in DNA. Genes do duplicate. Initially, a duplicate gene provides no additional information. But then each copy of the gene will undergo independent mutations, increasing the information. This is similar to the magnet analogy, where the second magnet is a “duplicate” of the first, providing no new information. But then the wind knocks them over, “mutating” them, and the two magnets are no longer duplicates. This results in increased information. If some magnet-eating monster with a preference for magnets with specific orientations came along, this would be “natural selection” of magnet orientations.
None of the creationist arguments based on information theory that I am aware of adequately address the obvious increase in information that can occur when a gene duplicates and the two copies undergo independent mutations leading to two genes with somewhat different functions. Gene duplication, mutation and selection are all known to occur due to natural biochemical processes in a variety of organisms studied in the laboratory. Many gene families are known with members that encode proteins having related structure and related but distinct function. Each family can be explained by multiple gene duplications followed by random mutation and differentiation of the functions of the individual gene copies. Clearly the expansion from a single primordial gene to a large family of genes with distinct functions represents an increase in genetic information.
A more detailed critique of Dr. Dembski’s thesis can be found in Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit’s “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s ‘Complex Specified Information’.” Elsberry and Shallit rigorously investigate Dembski’s claims and conclude:
We have argued that Dembski’s justification for “intelligent design” is flawed in many respects. His concepts of complexity and information are either orthogonal or opposite to the use of these terms in the literature. His concept of specification is ill-defined. Dembski’s use of the term “complex specified information” is inconsistent, and his proof of the “Law of Conservation of Information” is flawed. Finally, his claims about the limitations of evolutionary algorithms are incorrect. We conclude that there is no reason to accept his claims.
For readers looking for a less rigorous mathematical discussion of information theory, there is a very simple counterargument to the thesis advanced by Dr. Meyer and Dr. Dembski. Dr. Meyer argues that finding the origin of the information in DNA is critical: “If you can’t explain where the information comes from, you haven’t explained life, because it’s the information that makes the molecules into something that actually functions” (p. 225). If this is true, then it simply raises the further question of where the information required for God to function came from. I imagine that Dr. Meyer would say that God is the first cause of information, and has all information given his omniscience. But this is an admission that there is at least something—God—which has information but did not get it from something else. And once this is admitted, the argument that DNA must get its information from somewhere else fails. The argument from information theory, like many other seemingly “scientific” arguments for God, simply raises a problem only to claim that God is the solution to that problem. In reality, however, this merely pushes the problem back one more step. If there is a real problem to resolve, simply passing it on to God and then claiming that God exempt from the problem isn’t any solution at all.
Next Dr. Meyer turns to a discussion of abiogenesis, the origin of life. Even if the first biomolecule was far simpler than the DNA of modern life forms, Dr. Meyer argues that there is a “minimal complexity threshold” that must be reached. Moreover, the probability of a spontaneous generation of this minimum complexity biomolecule “would be one chance in a hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. That’s a ten with 125 zeros after it” (p. 229). This claim, however, is thoroughly refuted in “Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations“ by Ian Musgrave. As Musgrave notes, the calculations cited by creationists produce probabilities “so huge that merely contemplating it causes your brain to dribble out [of] your ears.” But such calculations, he argues, are highly flawed:
1) They calculate the probability of the formation of a “modern” protein, or even a complete bacterium with all “modern” proteins, by random events. This is not the abiogenesis theory at all.
2) They assume that there is a fixed number of proteins, with fixed sequences for each protein, that are required for life.
3) They calculate the probability of sequential trials, rather than simultaneous trials.
4) They misunderstand what is meant by a probability calculation.
5) They seriously underestimate the number of functional enzymes/ribozymes present in a group of random sequences.
Musgrave goes into more detail, of course, on each of the five points listed above, and I leave it to the reader to consult his discussion. However, I’d like to clarify what his third point entails. Most people have no idea how long a “trial” in a chemical reaction takes. Consequently, if building a certain molecule takes a billion trials, most people do not know how long it takes to build that molecule. Moreover, the amount of time required is highly variable and depends upon the specific molecule being made and the starting conditions when building it. But for point of reference, a gram of water (about 12 drops) contains approximately 37,625,000,000,000,000,000,000 (over 37 thousand billion billion) molecules. And chemical reactions can happen in microseconds. Though the actual number of reactions that ensue depends upon what chemicals are reacting, Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” of reactions (trials) can occur in a fraction of a second in a few drops of solution. Thus the significance of Dr. Meyer’s huge probability estimates is unclear. And whenever an author appeals to the practical impossibility of an event by citing fantastically unlikely probability estimates, it is almost always a case of someone trying to bulldoze the novice reader.
Though Strobel introduces the idea that the first biomolecule might be much simpler than DNA or RNA, the issue is quickly dropped. Strobel then returns to discounting DNA or RNA as a viable first molecule. But since no researcher with expertise in abiogenesis believes that either DNA or RNA was the first biomolecule, Dr. Meyer’s arguments against this possibility attack a straw man. On the issue of the first biomolecule, Dr. Musgrave says: “The first ‘living things‘ [sic] could have been a single self replicating molecule, similar to the ‘self-replicating’ peptide from the Ghadiri group, or the self replicating hexanucleotide, or possibly an RNA polymerase that acts on itself.” Of course, we cannot know what happened three billion years or so ago with much certainty. But despite that, nobody in the field posits DNA or RNA as a viable first biomolecule. That Dr. Meyer spends so much time on this topic, attacking what he must have known to be a straw man, significantly damages his credibility.
There is one final point to consider regarding Dr. Meyer’s arguments. Dr. Meyer’s claim that life is so unlikely that it must have been specifically created appears to conflict with Collins’ arguments about the alleged fine-tuning of the universe. For if both lines of argument are correct, the Designer fine-tunes the world to allow life to appear without divine intervention, but doesn’t fine-tune the world so that life will appear without divine intervention. That seems very odd indeed. And of course Strobel didn’t even try to reconcile these two conflicting lines of argument.
The chapter with Dr. J. P. Moreland covers a number of related topics dealing with the human consciousness. Though Moreland has a doctorate in philosophy and an undergraduate chemistry degree, he is not an expert on brain physiology or chemistry. First, Dr. Moreland claims that consciousness could not have evolved through natural processes. Second, he claims that there is experimental evidence that consciousness is separate from the brain. Finally, he points to near-death experiences (NDEs) as evidence that consciousness can survive the death of the brain. I will address each of these topics in turn.
First, the claim that consciousness could not have originated by natural processes is dubious. I will not try to improve upon the TalkOrigins archive article “Claim CB400: Evolution cannot explain consciousness or free will“, which concludes:
We are barely beginning to understand what consciousness is, [so] it is not surprising that we would not have its origin worked out yet. In fact, preliminary explanations for the origin of consciousness have been proposed. They are too complicated to try to summarize here; see Minsky  and Dennett. Much more experimentation and refinement is needed before we have a full-fledged theory of the origin of consciousness, but we have more than enough to know that such a theory is possible.
A factor which likely contributes to the claim of consciousness’s inexplicability is the fact that many people don’t want a naturalistic explanation of consciousness, since a natural consciousness doesn’t fit easily with a divine soul. This threatens people’s desire for a divine origin and immortality (but see Dennett [1991, 430] for immortality of a naturalistic consciousness). An examination of this point alone could fill a book. However, suffice it to say,
a. There is much evidence—from genetic predispositions of behavior and personality, from brain injury studies, from brain imaging of healthy people, etc.—that consciousness is naturalistic now. A natural origin wouldn’t matter much beyond that.
b. What we want has no bearing on what really is.
Dr. Moreland’s next claim is that there experimental evidence suggesting that consciousness is separate from the brain. He explains the sort of evidence that he has in mind:
For example, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated the brains of epilepsy patients and found he could cause them to move their arms or legs, turn their heads or eyes, talk, or swallow. Invariably, the patient would respond, “I didn’t do that. You did.” According to Penfield, “the patient thinks of himself as having an existence separate from his body” (p. 258).
With all due respect, this is extremely flimsy evidence. The fact that people tend to think of themselves as having an existence separate from the body has little to do with whether persons actually are separable from their bodies. Dr. Moreland adds that Dr. Penfield was unable to cause a patient to “believe or decide” simply by using electrical stimulation of the brain. Dr. Moreland surmises, “This is because these functions are innate in the conscious self, not the brain” (p. 258). But Dr. Penfield died about 30 years ago, and our understanding of the brain has advanced considerably since then.
As someone who suffers from depression, I know firsthand that my attitude and decision-making change markedly depending on whether or not I take my medication. The well-documented effects of chemical compounds on the mind–which are so prevalent as to have spawned an entire industry of psychopharmacology–provide pretty strong evidence that thoughts are biochemical. After all, if thoughts are nonphysical, then it is hard to see how they could be subject to such direct and predictable physical influence. Furthermore, every known disease or impairment of the physical brain—from bullet wounds to Alzheimer’s disease—causes a commensurate impairment of one’s cognitive functions. Again, if the mind were nonphysical, how could mere physical damage so directly and predictably produce corresponding mental damage?
Beyerstein lists five main types of empirical evidence which support the dependence of consciousness on the brain. First, phylogenetic evidence refers to the evolutionary relationship between the complexity of the brain and a species’ cognitive traits (Beyerstein 45). Corliss Lamont sums up this evidence: “We find that the greater the size of the brain and its cerebral cortex in relation to the animal body and the greater their complexity, the higher and more versatile the form of life” (Lamont 63). Second, the developmental evidence for mind-brain dependence is that mental abilities emerge with the development of the brain; failure in brain development prevents mental development (Beyerstein 45). Third, clinical evidence consists of cases of brain damage that result from accidents, toxins, diseases, and malnutrition that often result in irreversible losses of mental functioning (45). If the mind could exist independently of the brain, why couldn’t the mind compensate for lost faculties when brain cells die after brain damage? (46). Fourth, the strongest empirical evidence for mind-brain dependence is derived from experiments in neuroscience. Mental states are correlated with brain states; electrical or chemical stimulation of the human brain invokes perceptions, memories, desires, and other mental states (45). Finally, the experiential evidence for mind-brain dependence consists of the effects of several different types of drugs which predictably affect mental states (45).
Finally, there is the evidence from near-death experiences. Many people view NDEs as glimpses of the afterlife, as I once did. Unfortunately, there is now good evidence that NDEs are not afterlife visions. For example, during their experiences, children who have NDEs are as likely to see living friends and family as deceased ones. There are also marked differences between the NDEs of people from different cultures. In “Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences“, Keith Augustine discusses many of these findings. Here is just one of the cultural differences he reports:
NDErs from different cultures also give different reasons for why they are sent back. Western NDErs are often ‘sent back’ in order to take care of immediate family or for some assumed purpose unknown to them; NDErs from India report meeting clerks in an impersonal afterlife bureaucracy who process the dead and send them back because they have been sent the wrong person due to paperwork mistakes.
As I said at the beginning of this review, no one should give more weight to my opinions than to the opinions of Strobel’s experts. However, Strobel repeatedly belies his claim of “standing in the shoes of the skeptic” by picking “experts” that are not truly experts on the topics at hand, failing to interview any experts skeptical of his viewpoint, and responding only to straw-man skeptical arguments that his “experts” can knock down. An honest review of the evidence—to which I’ve tried to provide some points of reference for the reader—shows that the “strong case” Strobel constantly refers to is anything but strong.
This is not to deny that some of the mysteries Strobel presents are indeed big mysteries. For example, while there are theories about the origin of the universe and abiogenesis, it is clear that there is a good deal of uncertainty about these events. But mere ignorance of the answer to a question does not justify a supernatural explanation. Invoking a “God of the gaps”—an explanation where God performs some function to fill in a gap in our knowledge—is unproductive. History shows that such gaps are eventually filled with demonstrable naturalistic explanations, making God a superfluous—or even falsified—hypothesis.
But even as I write, I sympathize with Strobel’s desire to prove immortality. I used to read “…by the Light” NDE books in hopes of catching a glimpse of immortality. If I had had any idea then that my investigation of the sorts of topics Strobel addresses might lead me to atheism, I probably would not have had the courage to look into them. But if I may close with a quote from “The Case Against Immortality“:
Modern science demonstrates the dependence of consciousness on the brain, verifying that the mind must die with the body. This conclusion is emotionally difficult to accept. Dylan Thomas forcefully expresses the animosity that many of us feel toward the prospect of our inevitable extinction: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lamont 211). Miguel de Unamuno expresses similar feelings: “If it is nothingness that awaits us, let us make an injustice of it; let us fight against destiny, even though without hope of victory” (Lamont 211). Bertrand Russell comes to a different conclusion: “I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting” (Edwards, “Immortality” vi). I must admit that, when confronted by the death of someone close to me, or contemplating my own inevitable death, I am not comforted by such words of wisdom. Nevertheless, we cannot base our beliefs on what we want to be true; the truth can only be found by weighing the evidence for a given idea.
 Theobald, Douglas L. “29+ Evidences Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent.” The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.83. 2004. 12 Jan, 2004 <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/>
 “Claim CC300: Complex life forms appear suddenly in the Cambrian Explosion, with no ancestral fossils.” The Talk.Origins Archive. <http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CC/CC300.html>
 Jonathan Wells. Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong. Regnery Publishing.
 Gishlick, Alan D., “Icons of Evolution? Why Much of What Jonathan Wells Writes About Evolution is Wrong.” National Center for Science Education Website <http://www.ncseweb.org/icons/>
 Gould, Stephen Jay. Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Ballantine Books.
 Stenger, Victor J. Has Science Found God? New York: Prometheus Books. 2003. pp. 78-79.
 Hoffman, Banesh and Helen Dukas (eds). Albert Einstein, the Human Side. Princeton University Press. 1981, p. 43.
 Ward, Peter and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. Springer Publishing.
 Darling, David. Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology. New York: Basic Books, 2001. pp. 92, 103.
 Ussery, David. “A Biochemist’s Response to ‘The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.” The Center for Biological Sequence Analysis (Technical University of Denmark) Faculty Pages. <http://www.cbs.dtu.dk/staff/dave/Behe.html>
 Dembski, William. No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
 Stenger, Victor J. Has Science Found God? New York: Prometheus Books. 2003. pp. 109-111. Online excerpt at: < http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Found/04Message.pdf>
 Elsberry, Wesley and Jeffrey Shallit. “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s ‘Complex Specified Information’.” Talk Reason Website. <http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandsdembski.pdf>
 Musgrave, Ian. “Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations.” The Talk.Origins Archive. <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/abioprob.html>
 “Claim CB400: Evolution cannot explain consciousness or free will.” The Talk.Origins Archive. <http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB400.html>
 Minsky, M., 1985. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Dennett, Daniel C., 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
 Beyerstein, Barry L. “The Brain and Consciousness: Implications for Psi Phenomena.” In The Hundredth Monkey. Edited Kendrick Frazier. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991: 43-53.
 Lamont, Corliss. The Illusion of Immortality. 5th ed. New York: Unger/Continuum, 1990.
 Lamont, Corliss. The Illusion of Immortality. 5th ed. New York: Unger/Continuum, 1990.
 Edwards, Paul, ed. Immortality. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Foley, Jim. “Creationist Arguments: Java Man.” The Talk.Origins Archive. <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/a_java.html>
Foley, Jim. “Fossil Hominids The Evidence for Human Evolution.” The Talk.Origins Archive. <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/>
Well’s Icons of Evolution:
Matzke, Nick. “Icon of Obfuscation.” The Talk.Origins Archive. <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/wells/iconob.html>
The Fine-Tuning Argument:
Drange, Theodore M. “The Fine-Tuning Argument.” The Secular Web. </library/modern/theodore_drange/tuning.html>
Drange, Theodore M. “The Fine-Tuning Argument Revisited.” The Secular Web. </library/modern/theodore_drange/tuning-revisited.html>
Science and miracles:
Drange, Theodore M. “Science and Miracles.” The Secular Web. </library/modern/theodore_drange/miracles.html>
Carrier, Richard. “Review of In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History.” The Secular Web. </library/modern/richard_carrier/indef/index.html>
The Cosmological Argument:
Morriston, Wes. “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?.” The University of Colorado at Boulder Faculty Pages. <http://stripe.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam2.html>
Barker, Dan. “Cosmological Kalamity.” The Secular Web. </library/modern/dan_barker/kalamity.html>
Scorzo, Dan. “A Discussion of the Kalam Argument.” The Secular Web. </library/modern/greg_scorzo/kalam.html>
Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box:
Miller, Kenneth R. “Darwin’s Black Box: Reviewed by Kenneth R. Miller.” Brown BioMed Faculty Pages. <http://biomed.brown.edu/Faculty/M/Miller/Behe.html>
Adami, Christoph. “Evolution of Biological Complexity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Website. <http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/97/9/4463/>
Schneider, Tom. “Information Theory Primer.” Laboratory of Experimental and Computational Biology Website. <http://www.lecb.ncifcrf.gov/~toms/paper/primer/>
Copyright ©2005 Paul Doland and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.