The case for atheism (2)

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By Douglas Anele

Logically speaking, ‘exists’ is a verb: it is not a predicate that can be added or removed from a connoting expression in a manner that makes an ontological difference. An important a posteriori argument for the existence of God is the teleological argument or argument from design. Because of its deceptive plausibility, which has seduced even first class scientists to accept the existence of a supernatural intelligent designer, we shall discuss ramifications of the argument extensively.

The English theologian and moral philosopher, William Paley (1743-1805), is the most cited exponent of the teleological argument. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, a proselytising Christian sect, the argument from design is the ultima ratio for God’s existence, as articulated in the book Life – How did it get Here: By evolution or by creation? Paley, in his magnum opus, Natural Theology (1802), drew extensively from anatomy and biology to make his case that natural organisms, like contrivances and machines, are incontestably the product of intelligent design.

Therefore, there must be an intelligent designer, God, incomparably superior to humans and who is responsible for designing the majestic universe and all the wonderful entities that populate it. Now, superficially, especially for those uninformed about the details of evolutionary theory, the teleological argument is a game-changer in the debate between creationists and atheists.

However, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has blown it to smithereens, by demonstrating the fallacy of thinking that anything which looks designed must have a designer. Ironically, amazing discoveries in the sciences, especially biology, have spawned a revival of the argument from design in the form of argument from improbability.

Fred Hoyle, a British astronomer, reportedly argued that the probability of life originating on earth by pure chance is no greater than the probability that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to put together a Boeing 747 aircraft.

Apologists of religion quickly latched on to Hoyle’s metaphor to argue the impossibility of assembling a cell, let alone a fully developed organism, from atoms without a designer. Hence it is not surprising that ‘intelligent design’ is the fashionable locution used by creationists to dress the hackneyed argument from design

. Essentially, the argument from improbability affirms that it is statistically impossible for a natural phenomenon, such as a protein molecule or the entire universe itself, to originate from pure chance; thus complex things, so the argument goes, cannot come about by chance – there must be an undesigned intelligent designer who is responsible for their creation. As already indicated, the creationist argument is invalid: it presumes that the only alternative to chance is design.

But natural selection is a better, far more scientifically credible, alternative. Presenting details of how natural selection dissolves the problem raised by the improbability thesis will require elaborate analysis of technicalities from various biological sciences (including molecular biology and cell biology) which we cannot go into here. Suffice it to say, however, that natural selection is a cumulative process which breaks down the problem of improbability into small segments.

Each of the small segments is a little bit improbable, but not prohibitively so. Dawkins argues that when sufficiently large numbers of these slightly improbable events pile up in a series, what is produced thereby seems almost impossible that the creationist feels compelled to invoke a designer, God, which is really unnecessary.

Of course, more than a century before Dawkins Darwin had in his work, Origin of Species, masterfully demonstrated how a complex biological device such as the eye, for example, could have evolved by gradual degrees. The same principle is fully elaborated by Dawkins in his book, Climbing Mount Improbable.

Deep understanding of the basic mechanisms of natural selection, as originally formulated by Darwin and articulated further by biological scientists since the emergence of genetics, will definitely reveal how gratuitous the creationist argument really is. Now, let us find out whether or not seemingly improbable events do occur, even though we have argued a moment ago that natural selection beautifully explains how statistically improbable entities could arise from less improbable steps.

There is solid evidence that events which at first sight appear highly improbable sometimes occur with surprising regularity. Russell F. Doolittle, in his paper, “Probability and the Origin of Life,” used the game of bridge to illustrate this point. He asked the question: how likely is it that a person playing bridge will be dealt a perfect hand of all thirteen spades?

The probability of that happening is one in 635, 013, 559, 600, the number of different sets of thirteen cards in a standard deck of fifty-two. Obviously, being dealt a perfect hand in a game of bridge is very improbable; still it happens, because it is just a matter of how many people are playing within a specific time frame.

According to Doolittle, in the 1920s and 1930s when the game was popular in England, it is estimated that “perfect hands” were an annual occurrence in that country. Extrapolating from the above, the passage from one successive stage to the next in biological evolution is well within the parameters of probable occurrence, although the end result of the series appears prohibitively improbable.

Consequently, although scientists are yet to discover and account fully for the intricate mechanisms underpinning the coupling of protein manufacture to the information in polynucleotide sequences, it is well within the capabilities of nature in the prebiotic aqueous environment of the young earth that once a small number of polypeptide chains that could catalyse a few critical reactions – notably the polymerisation of nucleotides and the incorporation of amino acids – had been formed a critical Rubicon in the evolution of life was crossed.

No serious scientist doubts the validity of Doolittle’s argument that life on earth (at all levels in its evolution) developed in stages, each stage built on the stabilising, catalytic and replicative power of the stage before it. Creationism has contributed nothing to enhance scientific understanding of bioenergetics and molecular biology, unlike the theory of natural selection which adequately accounts for the fact that divergences in haemoglobin chains of various vertebrates are the same as the ones predicted from classical taxonomic studies of various animals based on their visible characteristics.

Simply put, the God hypothesis is totally useless as a tool for research in biological sciences, or in any science for that matter. There is a trick in the theist’s arsenal which must be identified and debunked. Creationist critics of the theory of evolution eagerly point to gaps in current knowledge about natural selection, especially gaps in the fossil record, as evidence of God’s intervention in the biological scheme of things.

But then, it is wrongheaded to expect hundred percent preservation of the fossil record, just as it is to demand, before convicting a murder suspect, a complete cinematic record of the murderer’s every step leading up to crime, with no missing frame.

Most living organisms do not fossilise; moreover, natural geological and geographical occurrences such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, agents of denudation, the perishable nature of organisms themselves and so on limit the number of fossils that are formed.

Hence, although we could easily have had no fossils, evidence from molecular genetics and geographical distribution of species still favours evolution and, therefore, makes the God hypothesis superfluous. TO BE CONTINUED.

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