Another rabbi embarrasses me

You might remember Rabbi Adam Jacobs, who proved God by using the god-of-the-gaps argument with respect to the origin of life. That, in turn, led to the appearance on this site of another rabbi, Moshe Averick, who apparently thinks that the origin of life by natural means was impossible since the first fossil organisms we have were already cyanobacteria.  Averick demonstrated remarkable tenacity at “debating” by simply holding on to his original position, like a dog with his teeth in the postman’s leg.

The whole thing taught me a lesson: Jews can be just as willfully misguided about evolution as Christians like William Dembski or Michael Behe.

Adam Jacobs is back again, embarrassing me (and all atheistic Jews) with another PuffHo piece,  “Atheism’s odd relationship with morality.”  The relationship, of course, is that if you’re an atheist and think that free will is illusory, you have no reason to be moral:

What difference could it possibly make what one random collection of electrons does to another? He harbors some subjective notion that things ought not be done that way? Well tough darts. It boils down to his meaningless assertion vs. their equally meaningless one. Furthermore, if there is no such thing as free will, then what sense does it make to blame anyone for any action whatsoever? “I felt like it” or “I couldn’t help myself” should be considered perfectly reasonable defenses to any “wrong-doing.” In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it).

He goes on to justify racism as the natural outgrowth of Darwinism:

Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do to their creation in the “image of God.”

I don’t want to sound like Berlinerblau and Hoffmann, but I do recommend that the good rabbi do a bit of reading. That would include Steve Pinker’s chapter on punishment and determinism in The Blank Slate, where he sees the true value of punishment as deterrence: an environmental intervention that deterministically controls people’s willingness to commit crimes.  The value of punishment, as well as milder sanctions like shunning and disapprobabion, are independent of whether or not we have free will (and I don’t believe we do, at least in the conventional sense of a “ghost in the brain”).

And maybe Jacobs would like to read some of the many books, starting with Frans de Waal, on how morality might be at least partially evolved in our species—an adaptation that enabled us to live in cohesive groups.   Evolved morality, buttressed by universal social strictures, may well explain the feeling (emphasized by Marc Hauser) that many moral strictures feel innate—that we often have a gut response rather than a reasoned one about why things are right or wrong. (This holds, for example, for moral dilemmas like the trolley problem. If you haven’t read about that one, do so, for it’s fascinating.)

Perhaps this gut response is what Francis Collins means by “The Moral Law”: our innate sense of right and wrong.  And Jacobs, like Collins, thinks that there can be only one source for this law—God (well, Collins might append Jebus as well).  Jacobs:

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Maybe I should also recommend that Jacobs read Plato, who pointed out four hundred years before purported Christ that “piety” (for this you can read “morality”) cannot issue directly from the gods, since if gods loved impiety (read “immorality”) we would not adhere to their will. This shows that we have standards for morality independent of what gods dictate. Many later philosophers also noted this dilemma.

The conclusion that morality cannot come from gods seems so obvious to me that I’m baffled why people like Collins and Jacobs believe otherwise.  Well, maybe Jacobs just believes that morality doesn’t necessarily come from God, but that religion itself buttresses morality.  And in some cases it does, though I much prefer a morality that comes from secular reason than one associated with a despotic sky-father.  For one thing, religion also buttresses immorality. Some people’s “Judeo-Christian ethics” foster discrimination against gays and women, prohibit condoms and many types of sex, and completely condemn abortion, even when the mother’s life is in danger. (I often wonder what people would think about abortion were there no religion.)

Other religions’ “ethics” call for killing apostates or those who draw the Prophet, stoning adulterers, and killing “witches”.   None of these horrific acts are part of the secular ethics espoused by atheists.

Finally, has the Rabbi noticed that his own holy book, the Old Testament, sanctions a lot of actions that we’d consider immoral today, like genocide, stoning for violating the Sabbath, and death for homosexual acts?  If we are to do god’s will, why not that will?

I’m pretty sure that Rabbi Jacobs, like nearly all Christians and Jews, picks and chooses his Biblically-based ethics.  Why? Because he has an innate sense of what actions are right or wrong, or because he doesn’t think that god’s expressed will comports with modern secular reason and “well being.”

Those, by the way, are also the sources of atheist ethics.

Let us not confuse the idea that ethics come from god with the observation that ethics are promoted by religions. The first notion is wholly false, the second only partly true.

103 Comments

  1. Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Free will is either an illusion or it is not. If he wants to argue that it is an illusion then he must accept that God punishes us for actions beyond our control.

  2. Insightful Ape
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    The piece tells me more about the good rabbi than about those who accept the scientific findings of evolutionary biology and neuroscience.
    He is good at knocking down strawmans.

  3. Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    Ah, yes. This same tired argument also permeates through Christian circles, as well. Most notably, it is the only argument proffered by Douglas Wilson in his multiple books. It lends credibility to the notion that most theists do not anything that may challenge what they believe or, if they do, dismiss the logic being given in said books.

  4. Helen Wise
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    One always wishes one could bathe after, of course, but it is possible to spend a few enjoyable hours reading the comments attached to Jacobs’ piece at HuffPo. The count is running against the Rabbi by about 50 to 1. Apparently, according to his readers there, it IS possible to an ethical/moral atheist. Who gnu?

    Probably you’re already aware of it, but Rosenau has a piece up at his place addressing the Berlinerblau/Hoffman piece from yesterday. You can imagine.

  5. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Well, I don’t imagine Jacobs actually thinks that morality comes from God, just that it comes from religious traditions, made up or no. The fact is, though, that the morality of those traditions is brutal, and true morality has only arisen when people expand empathy beyond their narrow tribe.

    • Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      He seems to think morality comes from God. He certainly thinks non-belief in God entails non-morality, and he thinks theism=an absolute standard for morality, which sounds more like a god than like traditions.

      “Objective morality requires an absolute standard by which to judge it.”

      “Absolute” surely means either “God” or some abstraction that might as well be “God.” Traditions aren’t absolute.

      • Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        That reminds me of the line from Fiddler On The Roof where Topol talks about the central importance of traditions in village life and says

        “Why do we have these traditions? I’ll tell you…

        I don’t know.”

        Cracks me up every time.

        • Filippo
          Posted March 27, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

          And the one where one of the rabbinical students asks the elderly rabbi, “Is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?”

          Reply: “May God bless, and keep the Tsar – far away from us!”

  6. pwuk
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    What irks me with these people is one minute its god’s plan for, then its god gave us free will.

  7. AnthonyK
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    I was surprised to hear the “well, your morality comes from Judaeo-Christian history (whether you acknowledge it or not)” argument from a professor of philisophy I know.
    It seems to me extraordinarily weak, since it begs the question which J-C morality, from what portion of our shared (and sometimes conflicting) history? And it ignores the morality or lack of morality of all mankind’s other societies, from then till now.
    I regard myself as a moral person because, simply, the consequences of theft, violence, or murder are terrible and I do not wish to be associated with them in any way. In my world these are unequivocally bad things and therefore actions I avoid and comdemn in others.
    It also seems to me that religious people have a problem with cognitive dissonance: their religion tells them that they, and only they, are truly moral, but reality confronts them with atheists who clearly are too. Yet, they cannot be. Aah, but they must –
    I think it’s that head-explodey thing again.

    • Badger3k
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      It also leaves out all the non-Abrahamic Tradition countries. He may be being specific to those whose culture is Western, but still it is lacking.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Not forgetting pre-Abrahamic religious traditions.

        Egyptians circa 1500 BCE, in order to obtain eternal life in heaven after death, needed 42 lesser gods to testify to Almighty God – Osiris – that they had lived exemplary moral lives – no lying, no stealing, no killing, no adultery…

        If they survived the weighing of their hearts in the balance with Truth they were awarded a sacred meal of bread and beer. Otherwise their hearts were devoured by a monster and their souls annihilated.

  8. Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    “Jews can be just as willfully misguided about evolution as Christians like William Dembski or Michael Behe.”

    This suggests that our rabbi knows he’s misguided but persists in his false beliefs out of some reprehensible motive, e.g., wanting to be right, not wanting to change his mind. He could, and should, simply give up his misguidance because deep down he knows he’s wrong.

    If this is what is meant by being willfully misguided (and others may have different ideas), I wonder if it’s actually the case. Another hypothesis is that our rabbi sincerely believes what he’s saying, thinks there are good reasons for it, and believes he is doing the best he can to get to the truth about things.

    Were this the case, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t stand corrected and mend his epistemic ways. But it might help reduce the rancor that sometimes arises when people wrongly impute insincerity or guile or bad motives.

    • Helen Wise
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      “But it might help reduce the rancor that sometimes arises when people wrongly impute insincerity or guile or bad motives.”

      Mr. Clark, the Rabbi is asserting that without a god, morality is not possible. He is not the first to make this assertion. The assertion is, a priori, deeply offensive to non-believers (and likely many believers, as well.) The Rabbi cannot possibly be unaware of this. Making the statement at a forum like the HuffingtonPost is like waving a cape in front of a bull. Rancor follows, and I would argue, it is rancor that the Rabbi could not have failed to know would follow.

      The Rabbi may be an ignorant person, but I doubt this. If we assume that the Rabbi has an education, and some appreciation for the current climate and context where his piece is published, to continue to assert that morality is not possible without god is to be willfully misguided, if not utterly delusional.

      • Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        He writes as if the only atheists now alive were in some lunatic asylum or on some island, killing each other, not all about him, possibly being kind to him; and as if the only dead atheists were Stalin and Pol Pot.

        • Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps that should be “now alive and not writing blogs”

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      “Wilful” can mean “intent on having one’s own way; headstrong or obstinate”. It doesn’t only mean “intentional”.

  9. Aaron Novick
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    The fundamental mistake is to think that free will, a silly metaphysical bogey invented by philosophers, has anything whatsoever to with choice, a psychological phenomenon. Modern science and atheism makes belief in free will implausible, but what matters in terms of holding people accountable for their actions is choice, and that’s not threatened by determinism (insofar as it’s true) and the absence of free will at all.

    And talking about electrons bumping into one another is just a cheap ploy. I don’t care about electrons bumping into one another*, but I do care about living, suffering organisms bumping into one another.

    *When considering morality—the science behind it is of course fascinating.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      The talk about electrons bumping anything also is clear evidence that the rabbi, whatever his educational background, did not take enough science classes.

      Electrons don’t “bump” anything.

      • Tyro
        Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        Just going from memory but from what I recall from reading Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, he introduced quantum mechanics by imagining a double-slit with a force gauge which would let us measure when electrons bumped into it. It may not have been the word “bump” but I think that was the idea. If Feynman gets a pass because, lets face it, a perfectly precise description is not convenient and can obscure the bigger ideas.

        With everything else that the rabbi messes up, I would put this imprecise use of language well down on the list.

  10. AdamK
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    One wonders how a rabbi could stay silent on the “judeo-christian” traditional morality that follows divine commands to punish christ-killing jews, but also to displace and oppress the non-jewish residents of “zion.” His argument opens up “morality” to a lot of random and vile immorality, since god just happens to endorse whatever the tribe does.

  11. Ludo
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    This jingle about supposedly divine origins of morality is in fact hardly based on careful thought, but rather a thoughtless knee-jerk reflex of certain Believers. In our time the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ offers a much better basis for morality than any of the Holy Scriptures.

  12. Grania Spingies
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Is this some of that sophistimacated theology we’ve been hearing about?

    One of the stupidest questions I ever get from people who realise for the first time that I am an atheist is “Well why don’t you murder & rape all day?”.

    Rabbi Jacobs’ article is the same unthinking question, only using a lot more words, some of them containing more than one syllable.

    • Sigmund
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      Grania Spingies said:
      “One of the stupidest questions I ever get from people who realise for the first time that I am an atheist is “Well why don’t you murder & rape all day?”.”
      I find that turning the question back on the theist who asked such a silly thing is usually quite effective.
      ‘Is your urge to rape and kill kept in check by your religion?’
      Even if they try to brave it out by saying that it is I can follow up by posing a few more possibilities.
      ‘How about your urge towards child rape, cannibalism or necrophilia?’
      The theist is then faced with two options. Either they can admit they don’t have these urges (lets hope not anyway!)- so God has nothing to do with it – or they can brave it out again and admit they do and that their religion is keeping it under control.
      At which point I tell them I am glad that they have found a way to cope with their problems and I end the conversation.
      You might not have won the argument but you have got them to admit to being a (currently non-practicing) child raping, cannibalistic, necrophiliac!

      • Tyro
        Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        Love it!

        • Majo
          Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

          That’s what I always wonder about too when I read these arguments from the devout – is the only thing keeping the rest of us safe from their (apparently barely repressed) urge to murder, rape, and pillage their belief in a god-given morality that tells them it would be wrong to do so? It’s a scary thought.

      • JS1685
        Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        We always joke about going to our “baby roasts” (since people equate atheism with utter depravity), but as you’ve shown, it’s the theist’s cannibalism we need to worry about!
        :)

        • Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          So what is this absolute morality that derives from a Judeo-Christian worldview?

          * Don’t lie, cheat or steal. How many societies could survive in which lying, cheating and stealing were endemic? It seems almost certain that such a meme evolved.

          * Don’t kill. As above, and while the rabbi says these things are absolute, he and all “Judeo-Christians” wrestle with the permissibility of
          * war
          * capital punishment
          * abortion (from the “moment” of conceptin?)
          * euthanasia
          * altruistic suicide and
          * the trolley problem
          – just as we and everyone else do.

          * Don’t commit adultery. Yet some form of that flows inexorably from any definition of marriage.

          Conspicuously absent from the God-given absolutes are
          * Don’t exploit
          * Don’t oppress/enslave (especially children)
          * Don’t rape (absent except as a property crime)
          * Treat people of all races, sexes, (sexual orientations, abilities?) equally.

          What these have in common is that they can all be derived from humanistic principles, and since we are all human, it seems much more probable that that is how the “divinely ordained” ones were in fact derived.

          Meanwhile the rabbi seems compelled to demand that polythesism, idolatory, Sabbath-breaking and parent-dishonouring (even of abusive parents) must be condemned in the same terms as the first list, even unto death, since they are equally “divinely ordained” and hence “absolute”.

    • Posted March 27, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      One of the stupidest questions I ever get from people who realise for the first time that I am an atheist is “Well why don’t you murder & rape all day?”.

      Yes. I’ve been told that the only reason I am an atheist is that I need to be one to support my wicked gay lifestyle, the implication being that were I to “come to Christ” I would cease being gay. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to lose my temper at the time, but I wouldn’t doubt it if that same person equated homosexuality with rape and murder. People selling this line, along with Jacobs, are replete idiots.

      • JS1685
        Posted March 27, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        “Wicked gay” in the Boston vernacular sense? ;)

    • Marella
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      If some idiot asked my why I didn’t murder and rape all day I would just say “I’m too lazy. Murdering and raping are hard work you know.” No point in talking to dickheads.

    • Sajanas
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Its interesting then, that in spite of being suggested that Christianity is a stark moral lifestyle, that so many of the Mafia is Roman Catholic. I feel like the arguments for religion making people moral is undercut by how incredibly easy it is to find forgiveness from clergy for your foul deeds, or at least to find *one* cleric willing to forgive them. Ultimately, religion is not even really about keeping people moral, its about making religion indispensable in letting people feel better about their immorality. The RCC sex crime forgiveness festival seems pretty illustrative of this. They just keep assuming that since the child rapists confessed and were absolved, that they were all betters. One can only imagine how many murderers and rapists would *actually confess* without these eager ears all around.

  13. Circe
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

    This persistent tripe about all morality coming from so-called “Judeo-Christian ethic” always gives me the shivers. How can anyone possibly believe, without a healthy dose of inherent racism, that a minority religious view, prevalent in a small part of the world could possibly be the source of all human morality? It is not only arrogant, it also displays a significant lack of historical knowledge about the different cultures of the world, almost all of whom developed similar codes of “ethics”, often long before, and almost always blissfully unaware of, this so called “Judeo-Christian ethic”.

    • ckitching
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      How about the mere fact that they believe the world is around 6,000 years old, despite the fact we have records from various civilizations dating back at least 10,000 years. Did the Chinese simply not realize they didn’t exist yet when they recorded the other 4,000 years of their history?

  14. Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Wait a minute — How can it be that if one is an atheist who thinks that free will is illusory, one would have no reason to be moral? I mean, if free will is illusory, why would an atheist (or anyone else) have ANY reason to be or do ANYthing that is not already rigorously mechanically dictated by the initial conditions of the universe some billions of years ago??? I mean, that I would be typing and posting this very comment was irrevocably rigorously determined billions of years ago, if “free will” is mere predetermined but utterly realistic illusion, yes? No???

    • Tyro
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      If I understand your argument, you’re saying that by not believing in free will, we should then be free to act in ways that contradict physics, chemistry, biology and sociology. Thus is a flash we both overcome science whilst ironically developing true contra-causal free will!

      That’s like, wow, mind-blowing. But I think it requires the assumption that we can do anything we wish, no matter what the biochemistry of our body which would mean that you’re assuming the existence of some sort of crazy magical free will in order to attack the non-existence of crazy magical free will.

      BTW: there is a difference between strict, mechanical determinism and free will. There are some descriptions of quantum mechanics which would, yes, imply that all of our actions were a part of the universal wave function at the start of our universe but I don’t think this is universally (ha) accepted. I don’t see how this should affect our views on free will one way or the other.

      • Badger3k
        Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

        No, he’s basically arguing a strict deterministic (if I remember my terms correctly) viewpoint – that if we think there is no free will, we have to follow the path determined for us by all the various influences. We would basically have no choice but to do what we do – and that act may or may not be moral. In that sense, even arguing about “choice” is nonsense.

        At least, that’s what it looks like he is arguing, but maybe that was determined for me all along and I had no choice but to respond as I did…. :)

        • Tyro
          Posted March 28, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

          if we think there is no free will, we have to follow the path determined for us by all the various influences

          Exactly how I interpreted it. Do you think that our beliefs about whether the universe is deterministic will make it any more or less deterministic? Do you think that determinism is an individual choice? He seems to think so.

          Worse, he seems to say that if we think the world is deterministic, we should stop responding to the biochemistry of our brains which governs our moral actions and ignore external observations and reason which would lead us to moral behaviour. Essentially, by believing that we lack free will, we must exhibit magical free will.

    • gillt
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Why are you assuming there’s no randomness in the universe? And what does the Big Bang have to do with human free will?

    • Posted March 28, 2011 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      Bertrand Russell told a story about a man who was walking down a blind street, with the Free Will Society on one side and the Institute for Determinism on the other.

      He walked into the Institute for Determinism and they asked him,
      “Why did you come in here?”
      “I dont’ know, I just wanted to.”
      So they kicked him into the street.

      He picked himself up and stumbled into the Free Will Society.
      “Why did you come in here?”
      “I had no other choice.”
      So they kicked him into the street.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 12:42 am | Permalink

      mechanically dictated by the initial conditions of the universe

      Since you insist in trying to blow our minds, let me try to blow your’s and introduce you to deterministic chaos:

      “A consequence of sensitivity to initial conditions is that if we start with only a finite amount of information about the system (as is usually the case in practice), then beyond a certain time the system will no longer be predictable.”

      One of those practical cases is as applied to real physics, since we can never have infinite precision in coordinates in practice. It would take an infinite amount of time and/or energy to specify a real valued position in time and space.

      There are more things in heaven and earth, Frank, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. It doesn’t matter whether physics are quantum mechanical or classical mechanical, in real universes there will never be such a thing as “mechanically dictated by the initial conditions of the universe”.

      [Fun fact, QM tend to make things _less_ unpredictable, since outside of the classical regime there is much less examples of sensitivity to initial conditions. QM states doesn't diverge exponentially but linearly for one thing.]

      Emergence is another problem with 18th century mechanistic philosophy. It turns out that simple things like quantum field theories are effective theories that emerge as epiphenomena on an underlying theory that we don’t know yet. So we use the effective theory nature presents as a valid approximation, not caring for that we have abandoned “mechanical dictates”.

      It is the assumption of mechanistic philosophy that an underlying theory exists, but is it a fact? What if everything is a patchwork purely selected by environmental conditions (ie anthropic principles)?

      Whether or not free will is emergent on the brains basic functions in reality or only illusory (which is my choice for the moment), it is fully separated from underlying mechanics.

      [Or it wouldn't be a good enough illusion, when we reconstruct our "free will" after the fact. In a process not unlike how people pick and place to reconstruct "gods" out of everyday events btw. Seems one process is informative of the other, :-D]

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 28, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

        It would take an infinite amount of time and/or energy to specify a real valued position in time and space.

        Ah, I see have to make away with some possible misunderstandings:

        – This is a fact of physics itself as much as of our observations of it. It must itself operate with infinite precision to repeat precisely, but it can’t for the reasons given.

        – Some will throw in a Big Bang singularity as example of infinites. But we have no reason to think that these are possible or likely. For example, in standard cosmology the simplest cases of inflation naturally have no previous big bang state but ongoing inflation.

        In any case our universe emerged precisely _after_ an inflation process that was exponentially sensitive to initial conditions.

      • Yahzi
        Posted March 28, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

        I like to say the future is pre-determined but unpredictable; that is, it takes longer to calculate the future than it does for the future to just happen.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:07 am | Permalink

          Entertaining, but perhaps close to the facts. Some people, myself included, thinks that it takes exactly the same time.

          Because physics has to operate with information (it results in information), the theory is that it “calculates”, in some sense proceeding algorithmically. (“Algorythmically”? Too punny?)

          It would predict the still unproven Church-Turing thesis (in effect that computability resides in our implementations of it, such as computers). And it would predict the resulting correlations between computational classes and physical systems that Scott Aaronson notes in his research.

          [And lastly it would predict the observational absence of faster than light travel and time machines (answering the time Fermi paradox: "where are the time travelers"?), because time travel implodes computational classes if used in computational devices.]

      • JS1685
        Posted March 28, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

        It may very well be impossible to actually determine and measure all the information necessary to predict the future, but what I think Frank was doing was setting up a thought-experiment, i. e., Laplace’s Demon.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted March 28, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          Maybe we are talking around each other, since I previously noted that it is a misunderstanding to think nature operates in the way of the thought experiment.

          It may be of philosophical value, but doesn’t bear on Frank’s question if agents (or processes) have predetermined outcomes. No, processes are causal but not set in stone.

          Why else would we have time? (¬_¬)

          [I'm _mostly_ joking there, I suspect the one doesn't have to do with the other much.]

          So I’m at a loss about the value of the thought experiment to answer the question. Help, please?

          • JS1685
            Posted March 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

            Not that I agree with him, but it seems to me Frank is attempting to show that strict determinism is silly, via reductio.

            • Posted March 28, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

              But we all shouldn’t speak for him. Frank?

  15. Sigmund
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    If I seriously thought my neighbor was really in danger of raping and murdering their children then the only moral thing for me to do would be to inform the authorities and try to get the children removed to a safe place.
    Rabbi Jacobs is essentially accusing atheists of being such a risk. Indeed the level of trust the good Rabbi shows towards atheists as a whole leads him to believe that the only ‘honest’ atheist he can think of is Jeffrey Dahmer!
    If that really is the case, if atheists are all Jeffrey Dahmers in waiting (yes, I realize that Dahmer was a fundamentalist Christian and the Rabbi probably does too) then why isn’t the Rabbi calling for the children of atheist parents to be taken into care?
    Is the Rabbi really willing to allow the rape and murder of so many innocent children?

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      That could be difficult for him to answer, there is the small matter of the rather shameful Talmudic tradition as codified by Maimonides, which detailed in stomach-churning and callous detail what could be done in the cases where women, girls and small children were raped. [This is not Old Testament era, by the way, this was as late as Middle Ages and was regarded as the go-to moral code for centuries after.]

      The younger the victim the more indifferent the Rabbinical code was to their trauma.
      The more a woman was gang-raped, the less the compensation each successive rapist was liable to pay – seeing as she was by rape number 5 extremely damaged and valueless goods and by rape number 10 barely worth noting. For good measure you could maybe compel her first rapist to marry her then.

      Still, it’s all a part of a much revered religious tradition, so it must be moral, right Rabbi?

      If you want to read up on this, try “Rape, Biblical Roots Of The Long Leash On Men” by John Hartung.

  16. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    The parallels between Christian and Jewish arguments on science, morality and atheism are really striking. With “liberal” Rabbis, you seem to get the same kind of Karen Armstrong-type woo that you get from liberal Christians. And Orthodox Rabbis seem to want to use the full-monty, gross misinterpretation and bald assertion of non-fact method that you get from many evangelical Christians. I think this goes to prove that all religions are the same.

  17. Tyro
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I do find it interesting that atheists are often accused of only picking on Christian arguments. I know this is largely a product of our environment so it’s always interesting for me to read about critiques of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other religions if only because I’m far less immersed in their beliefs. Please keep up the good work educating us, exposing us to different cultures (not to mention their food and boot-making) and busting a few atheistic stereotypes.

  18. Posted March 27, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I see the good rabbi is just the latest in a long line of believers urging atheists to be less moral. It must be so frustrating to him that we don’t conform to his poorly-thought-out stereotypes, dammit!

  19. Terry
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    ” In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it).”

    This sounds like the author is describing Christianity, (and all religions.) This is what the religionist’s do as an avocation.

  20. Sastra
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    …the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do to their creation in the “image of God.”

    This claim, which is common, is as strong as unjelled Jello — because how do you objectively measure “the image of God?” People presumably can’t have it in equal measure, for it’s supposed to be something we can choose to “live up to” or not. So how do we tell who has it, who has it more, who has it less, and who has lost or renounced all their “resemblance” to God — and, therefore, lost or renounced all their value?

    Faith. There’s nothing more arbitrary than faith. There is no earthly standard to measure anything “known” through faith, and no common consensus on how to arbitrate competing claims based on faith.

    Claiming that some people are more in God’s image than others is easy, and has always been easy. You can check nature for a false fact more easily than you can check with God for a mistaken theology, because God will always confirm the theology He gave you.

    I also find it particularly ironic that a Jewish rabbi is insisting that the foundation of his religion’s morality is that all people are equal under God — who wouldn’t then choose or favor any particular peoples over other peoples, I take it.

    • JS1685
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      all people are equal under God — who wouldn’t then choose or favor any particular peoples over other peoples

      Ha! Good one.

  21. Badger3k
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    “I don’t want to sound like Berlinerblau and Hoffman…”

    Don’t worry, you don’t. You are recommending current research into the relevant field, not the historical background. You can argue about the specifics without the background (although you do include Plato, but that also refers to a relevant argument). If you wanted to recommend the historical background to try to make the Rabbi a more well-rounded individual, that is a good thing, but you are also not arguing that he cannot make the argument without reading that history.

    That’s the primary difference to me.

  22. Posted March 27, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine.

    As always, religion shows up late, jumps in after the work is done, and takes credit for everything.

  23. Posted March 27, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I’m constantly amazed by how many theists will argue as follows: (a) If there is no God and no ultimate purpose in nature, then our lives are meaningless and there’s no reason to be moral; therefore, (b) God exists (and we must obey him). Isn’t it obvious that (a) is false, and that (b) doesn’t follow from (a) in any case? (And anyone who thinks that the only reason to refrain from murder, theft and rape is because God said so is a very dangerous person.)

    How sad it is that these people go through life — this amazing opportunity we have been fortunate enough to receive — thinking that what really matters is obeying the purported will of some inscrutable being in the hope of being rewarded in some other life.

    You can see my critique of the rabbi’s article here.

    • Tyro
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Exactly.

      If morals only arise if there’s a God then both theists and atheists would have morals or neither of us would since God would exist for everyone. This is actually an argument for stopping asking whether God exists and simply believing regardless of whether it’s true or not. A pretty dishonest piece of work if you ask me.

      Further, we can clearly see that a lack of belief in a god does not necessitate immorality or despair so even this weak argument is falsified by even a cursory look at the evidence.

      Weak argument all around.

    • Nathan
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Very nice. Well done.

  24. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    There was no central religious tenents among the dozens of California native tribes, pre-contact with Europeans. Why did they not slaughter and maim each other, act destructively, without some sort of Judeo-Christian morality? Australian Bushman? How come they didn’t de-populate their area with their lack of Judeo-Christian morality?

    The fact that people eat the fruit of an apple tree and don’t try to eat the bark illustrates that atheists can certainly take pieces from religious tradition yet remain free of belief in religious tenants and dogma. Natural selection, after all, is the way of the world.

    • Tyro
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think the evidence backs this up, if anything it seems to contradict the main thrust of your argument.

      From what I’ve read from anthropologists and sociologists, primitive tribes (like the native North Americans, but tribes in general) were almost unimaginably violent. In some tribes, apparently over 50% of death came at the hand of another human. As violent as we imagine societies today are, it’s orders of magnitude safer than any of the native tribes anywhere in the world.

      This isn’t to say that the Europeans didn’t increase the level of violence experienced by some groups – genocide will do that – but that the overall levels were much, much lower and genocides were still carried out by tribal societies though on smaller scales.

      I was digging around looking for some stats and found: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Before_Civilization

      Not sure how reliable it is, but only one I found.

      • Scott near Berkeley
        Posted March 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        For many native tribes, especially in resource-poor areas of North America, warfare was endemic and constant. However, I mention California because it is an oft-cited example of a lack of general warfare (very notable, in fact) between tribes, because of the reasonably generous bounty of nature provided “enough to go around”. Down in the Southeast of the state, as well as the extreme northeast, conditions were not so benign, and warfare and “war culture” was pretty established. If you peruse the book “The Ohlone Way” by Malcolm Margoulan (sic) it will explain much about the native population (esp in Berkeley and surroundings). Interestingly, the Ohlone considered it “taboo” to speak of the dead. Questions by the Spanish regarding “ancestors” resulted in instant crying and wailing. There was no available “comfort” to be provided by the idea that the dearly departed were happy in “heaven”. Moral? I can give examples, esp regarding white-man/native interfaces. Excessively O/T.

        • Tyro
          Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

          I find these exceptions interesting because they “prove” (ie: “test”) the rule. As Jared Diamond hypothesized, access to natural resources was a huge advantage to some groups and if your description is accurate, it sounds like this was the case again here. I wonder why human populations didn’t grow to the point that inter-tribal conflicts grew back to the norm, or perhaps the tribal wars were far less frequent than neighbours but were still far higher than in larger societies.

          At the very least, it is consistent with the theory that a civilizations moral norms are dictated more by their size and resources rather than by their religions.

  25. GordonWillis
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I think that the bottom line is that the good Rabbi doesn’t see how we can judge anything as good if we have no objective standard. The problem is that his own standard is merely a matter of belief, and there seems no convincing way of establishing the truth of that belief. He would like an objective standard, so he believes in one.

    For him, any other way of sorting out the problems of good and bad must be “subjective” (read “arbitrary”, “a matter of feeling or opinion”, which are undesirable and therefore “bad”). I cannot see how his own position is in any way different.

    I suppose his gut-feeling is: we have a feeling about right and wrong, we must get this feeling from somewhere, and it has to be an indisputable source in order to justify this feeling, therefore God. Also, I think that he, like many people, really do think No God = randomness = nothing of any point or value. This assumption makes communication rather difficult, and I suspect that the same objections will continue to reappear for a very long time yet.

    If Jacobs could bear to think of morality as a way for us simply to get on with one another it might be easier for all of us, but somehow I doubt whether he can do that. Our getting on together is not what he really cares about. That’s why all this absolute-standard stuff is so frightening and destructive.

  26. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The rabbi’s belief in God-given morality is refuted by the founding myth of his tradition, in which God tests Abraham to see if he can be bullied into committing atrocities in God’s name. We know it’s an atrocity, whatever God may say about it, and so does Abraham, but he caves and is ready to do it anyway, and that makes him exactly the kind of guy God wants to lead his chosen people. Seems to me that tells you everything you need to know about theistic morality right there.

    We’ve had the discussion about free will and moral accountability before, so suffice it to say that if we are merely behavioral robots, then moral accountability is the mechanism by which we get programmed, so we can’t do without it, free will or no free will.

  27. Darrell E
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Jacobs is either a moron or a liar, or possibly both.


    It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview –

    So, after all his years of study, is he stupid enough to actually equate a scientific theory with a worldview, or is he lying? I know this is quite common, but jesus crunchy christ on a stick could these theist mouthpieces possibly come up with something new? Please?


    — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do (sic) to their creation in the “image of God.”

    Same question. Is Rabbi Jacobs really that stupid, even after all those years of education, or is he lying? Either way my next question is, “so how did that work out for all those tribes that your god told his favorite people to wipe off the face of the earth or, if they were lucky, to take as slaves?”


    At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine.

    So is Jacobs a YEC? He really doesn’t know, or believe, anything about the numerous other ancient cultures that have nothing to do with his gods favorite people, and that many of them are older? Maybe I’m wrong about Rabbi Jacobs and his ilk. Maybe they are not stupid, maybe they are not lying. Maybe they are so terrified of reality that they desperately need someone to tell them what to do every moment of their lives. And in their desperation they cling tight to whatever beliefs are necessary to validate their religion.


    I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

    We should all be profoundly grateful that neither the atheistic understanding of morality (whatever that is), nor the morality prevalent in most modern societies with Judeo-Christian roots, comes directly or indirectly from the Judeo-Christian ethic.

    • Posted March 27, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      And let us keep in mind that until very recently, and down to this day in certain circles, the “Judeo-Christian Ethic” is “Christians should kill Jews whenever possible”. The “Judeo-Christian Ethic” as a positive influence is an invention of very recent provenance, trotted out only when convenient, usually when trying to restrict the human rights of some marginalized group (women, gays, atheists — take your pick).

    • GordonWillis
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s a question of what belief entails. It seems to me that belief is not a rational thing, but about how things look. If one is brought up to look at things in a certain way, it’s hard not to see them that way, and harder to see the possibility that how one sees things might be wrong. So it may not be that Jacobs is lying or being stupid, but only that he has a fixed attitude on which he depends for his understanding of the world and which he is unable to change. The fact that the same old remarks keep turning up over and over again may be a symptom of “belief”.

      jesusandmo.net/2010/12/24/tomb2/

    • 386sx
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      So, after all his years of study, is he stupid enough to actually equate a scientific theory with a worldview, or is he lying?

      He gets it from other creationists. Without giving them proper credit of course. The buzzword “Darwinism” is usually a pretty good giveaway. He probably doesn’t have an original thought in the whole thing.

      Allow me to highlight a couple of random phrases from the article:

      “outgrowths of their purported philosophies”

      “what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic”

      I highlighted them because they sound stupid like he was trying to fill up some space with empty words. (And because I didn’t have nothin better to do.)

  28. Posted March 27, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,
    I guess I would understand if you did not post this, but I hope in the spirit of intellectual openess and honesty you would throw caution to the wind.

    Dr. Jerry Coyne has once again demonstrated the ability of secular Jews to stubbornly hold onto untenable and incoherent ideological positions (anything rather than have to eat kosher pastrami sandwiches), like the zealous Jewish Hellenists, socialists, anarchists, bundists, advocates of “enlightenment” (most of the “enlightened” Jews of Europe were put into gas chambers by the highly sophisticated, university educated, scientifically advanced, and very “enlightened” Germans) rabidly anti-religious secular Zionists, communists, and hippies of yesteryear. Each of those ideologies faded into the sunset of history, where I predict they will soon be joined by “militant atheism.” Dr. Coyne had this to say about my own position regarding the bafflement of Origin of Life researchers in trying to come up with plausible, empirically demonstrable theories backed by anything even remotely approaching conclusive evidence regarding the unguided production of pre-biotic compounds and homochiral amino acids and sugars that are necessary for life, the formation of true cellular membranes, and the emergence of a self-replicating RNA molecule:

    “Averick demonstrated remarkable tenacity at “debating” by simply holding on to his original position, like a dog with his teeth in the postman’s leg.”

    Dr. Coyne’s concluding statement sums up his position on this matter:

    “Nope, we don’t yet understand how life originated on Earth, but we have good leads, and abiogenesis is a thriving field. And we may never understand how life originated on Earth, because traces of early life have vanished. We know it happened at least once (and that all species descend from only one origin), but not how. I’m pretty confident that within, say 50 years we’ll be able to create life in a laboratory under the conditions of primitive Earth, but that too, won’t tell us exactly how it did happen, only that it could.”

    In other words: “You are correct Rabbi Averick, we don’t have any evidence how life emerged naturally, but we “know” it happened at least once.” How Dr. Coyne “knows” despite his candid admission that there is no evidence that it happened is a mystery that only atheistic scientists seem to understand. Maybe the reason there is no evidence is because it never did happen. Maybe life was created. It would seem reasonable to at least consider the possibility. However, he does promise that if we all wait around for 50 years, he’ll finally have the evidence that will prove what he “knows” today to be true. Imagine a District Attorney going before a judge and claiming that he “knows” the defendant is guilty, and in 50 years he’ll have the evidence to back it up.
    You are correct Dr. Coyne, I tenaciously held onto my position. I am not prepared to trade what seems to be the obvious truth about the emergence of life, for your promise of evidence to the contrary 50 years hence. Dr. Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute thought it would be interesting for us to have a moderated discussion on Origin of Life and I’m game if you are. For a full treatment of the other objections I encountered on this website please see: http://www.faithfulnews.com/contents/view_content2/49631/rabbi-moshe-averick-the-theist-holds-the-intellectual-high-ground-apologetics-christian-apologetics-defending-gospel

    In his recent attack on another HuffPost piece by Rabbi Adam Jacobs -“Atheism’s odd relationship with morality” – Dr. Coyne does not ask us to wait 50 years for the compilation of evidence that contradicts Rabbi Jacobs’ thesis, however, it does seem that he has missed the point entirely.
    Of course atheists have “values;” like most people, they generally adopt the basic values of the society in which they live. That, however, is completely beside the point that Rabbi Jacobs is making. The obvious point is that the “morality” of the atheist is based on nothing but his personal or societal preferences. They have no inherent significance. Samuel Butler put it quite succinctly: “Morality is the custom of one’s country and the current feelings of one’s peers. Cannibalism is moral in a cannibalistic country.” I assume Dr. Coyne concurs with the distinguished evolutionary biologist, G. Gaylord Simpson: “Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have a human in mind…he is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species in the order of primates…”
    The world of the animal is amoral. A lion that kills a zebra has done nothing right or wrong, neither good nor evil. While it is obviously true that the zebra, subjectively, would prefer not to be eaten, it does not change the amorality of the act. In the atheistic view, we are also animals. Just because, subjectively, we would like other human animals to behave in a certain way does not magically create a reality called “morality”. Just because, subjectively, one human animal does not want to be harmed by another human animal does not change the essential amorality of the behavior.
    For the atheist, “morality” is nothing more than a WORD which describes his own personal preferences. (In other words, the terms “personal preference” and “morality” are interchangeable.) Dr. Coyne has his personal preferences, Jean Paul Sartre had his personal preferences, and Josef Stalin and De Sade had their personal preferences. None are right, none are wrong. They simply are what they are. Amazingly, all atheistic philosophers agree. Peter Singer tells us that “I have no intrinsic moral taboos…my position is that nothing is just wrong.” Michael Ruse tells us that, “morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator,” that in an “objective sense…morality has no foundation,” and there is nothing objectively wrong with raping, pillaging, and murdering. Dr. Joel Marks was even honest enough to admit that “the religious fundamentalists are correct, without God there is no morality.”
    Dr. Coyne, don’t get me wrong, I do not expect you to engage in that kind of behavior; in fact I know you would find it to be profoundly abhorrent and you would be justifiably outraged if I would propose such a thing. However, I would suggest that what you call your “innate” – and most likely a very powerful – sense of morality has its basis in something much more substantial and significant than a particular flukey arrangement of sugars, phosphates, and nucleobases. It comes from your Jewish soul.

    Sincerely, Moshe Averick
    RabbiMaverick@hotmail.com
    http://www.RabbiMaverick.com

    PS You still have not told me if you are a Cubs or Sox fan.

    • 386sx
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

      I assume Dr. Coyne concurs with the distinguished evolutionary biologist, G. Gaylord Simpson: “Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have a human in mind…he is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species in the order of primates…”

      You might try reading the full paragraph. Anyone looking at that quote would immediately suspect that to be a misleading citation. (Anyone except for lazy creationists desperate to type… something, anything, gotta fill up that airtime ya know… who don’t bother checking sources, apparently.)

    • 386sx
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      P.S. yeah we know you got the quote from some other creationists somewhere. Try having an original thought once in a while. Lol.

    • Sigmund
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      I guess the dignity, charity and moral behavior towards their fellows that is evident in Japan right now is also due to their Jewish souls?

    • Yahzi
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:01 am | Permalink

      “I guess I would understand if you did not post this, but I hope in the spirit of intellectual openess and honesty you would throw caution to the wind.”

      Just so you know, Rabbi: I read no further than this.

      When you begin your argument by insulting the integrity of your opponent, there’s really no point anyone reading further.

      A lack of integrity is something one concludes, from evidence; rather than presumes, from prejudice. Ironically, your presumption has provided all the evidence a reader needs to reach their own conclusion regarding your integrity.

    • Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

      Actually, the sense of morality comes from the Tao, like everything else in the Universe ;)

      Only the silly, tribally superstitious peoples from the Middle East came up with their scary anthropomorphised deity in order to explain things they didn’t understand, and they are still at it today. This just goes to show how long a silly idea can live. Personally, I think the ideas in the Tao Te Ching, Wen Tsu, The Art of War and the Huainanzi make much more sense, and conform more to observed reality, than any of the monotheistic religions.*

      As for Peter Singer, you know that he follows a vegan diet for moral reasons? It can be considered immoral (or unethical, either works) to kill a sentient animal, as any living thing today will only ever experience this life exactly once. Think about it. All living things that have ever lived, and are living now, will only ever experience this universe as it is. Once they are gone, they will never experience it ever again. This is no after life, no respawning, and no reincarnation; just what we have now, with the imperfect senses that we are born with, and the processing capacity that we have in our heads (or wherever you keep your CPU)

      Animals (humans included) have consciousness and are only limited by the processing capacity of their brains to comprehend this universe. Given that, knowing there is no after-life, and no deity compelling us to be moral for our own selfish reasons (fear of punishment/eternal damnation), isn’t it more moral to take a stance (eg: vegan diet) that provides for the greatest good to the greatest number of living things? Since this moral stance can be taken by those that are atheists, are you being deliberately intellectually dishonest to couch your quotes is such a way to show that good people like Peter Singer are amoral? Note once again, the philosophy of only taking what you need from nature, and minimising the impact that we have on this world is one that exists independently of any deism, and was taught by Taoist philosophers without any influence from the Middle East many thousands of years ago.

      *Except the bits that talk about Heaven, but if this is taken metaphorically as “a theoretically ideal society” I can live with it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

      Dr. Coyne had this to say about my own position regarding the bafflement of Origin of Life researchers in trying to come up with plausible, empirically demonstrable theories backed by anything even remotely approaching conclusive evidence regarding the unguided production of pre-biotic compounds and homochiral amino acids and sugars that are necessary for life, the formation of true cellular membranes, and the emergence of a self-replicating RNA molecule:

      [...]

      How Dr. Coyne “knows” despite his candid admission that there is no evidence that it happened is a mystery that only atheistic scientists seem to understand. Maybe the reason there is no evidence is because it never did happen. Maybe life was created. It would seem reasonable to at least consider the possibility.

      Cutting away the oratory, this is what my comment below noticed is not a valid argument.

      If we accept evolution for the sake of the argument that OOL is a problem for it (or for atheism or whatever ails the world), observation of prebiotic organic compound production and Shostak’s spontaneously organized proto-cells would be enough to have a pathway to cells, no matter how unlikely.

      You can disregard the already known potential pathways because we don’t know precisely which one was taken or in effect the various likelihoods for any of them, which I take “conclusive evidence” is supposed to mean. But that doesn’t get you to a claim of “impossibility”, which is the question.

      On the contrary, discussing likelihoods *support* possibility. It is, well, an impossibility, to go from likelihood to impossibility without having a theory to test said impossibility on. Only in such case we can accept impossibility, for the time being and with quantified uncertainty.

      We also know since Pasteur that ongoing creation (“spontaneous generation”) is not in evidence. Having to choose between an observable process, and an unobserved, it isn’t reasonable to choose the latter.

      In any case, hanging a god image on the gods-of-the-gaps argument of non-existence of pathways, this theology is now a lost cause and rightly the religion it supports with it. Perhaps Averick will notice the problem he has. (Besides the more serious problem of rejecting science in its own field, I mean.)

    • Posted March 28, 2011 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      However, I would suggest that what you call your “innate” – and most likely a very powerful – sense of morality has its basis in something much more substantial and significant than a particular flukey arrangement of sugars, phosphates, and nucleobases. It comes from your Jewish soul.

      Very well, if atheists have to show how life began before you will believe it, can you please show:
      1) Where the Jewish soul is located (given your assertion that it is “substantial”)? and
      2) Just how does a Jewish soul interface with our “flukey arrangements of sugars, phosphates and nucleobases”?

      If you can do these things, then you might have a chance at convincing us through evidence. Otherwise ally you have are just feeble ancient superstitions that were once thought to describe the universe, but have since been found to be lacking.

    • Helen Wise
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      As I learned from the last time you parachuted into one of these posts, it is not worthwhile to debate you, Rabbi Averick. Your mind is as smooth and sealed as an aluminum cube. What would be the point of presenting you with any facts?

      Ps. You don’t write well, either.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      On the topic of the post, it bears to note that both Jacobs and Averick implies that there are impossibilities.

      Jacobs doesn’t say so outright, in fact in his effort to see “design” he seems to outright discard it. But he rejects any possibility of observed evolution of meaningful moral, meaningful for differential reproduction.

      Averick implies observed chemical evolution as OOL is impossible.

      This is a theological argument, as is the converse agnostic “folk logic” argument that “you can’t prove a negative” (a lack, an impossibility, or whatever it means). In reality we know that we can propose and test impossible characteristics, say anti-gravitation. But also that it is much harder to reject all possible pathways than to test for some possible pathways.

      This is the task Jacobs and Averick has put for themselves.

      On the topic of the comment, we can do more than present evidence of possible pathways.

      – As I have noted (too) many times already, pulling simple stochastic process theory out of the tool box we can use precisely “the first fossil organisms we have” of Averick to make a testable hypothesis.

      The simplest model of repeated abiogenetic attempts is a Poisson process, and at ~ 3.5 Gy old cyanobacterial stromatolites out of ~ 4.5 Gy Earth age we get a normalized delay of < ~ 0.2. The tail of the distribution is < ~ 5 % probability mass, so we can predict based on 3 sigma confidence (on the lousy statistic of one data point) that:
      * abiogenesis is simple (high rate and/or high success process).
      * many 5 Gy old habitable planets have life (~ 30 %).

      – We should be able to do something like Theobald's test for evolution through LUCA, looking for the probability of common genes and genetic code, for the "chemical code" of common CHONSP elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so forth. (And of having common amino acids, with more effort.) It is after all the creationists that portrays life as randomly assembled, while we see that biochemistry is chemically bottlenecked.

      The reason I haven't seen this before is, I believe, that we take the versatility of C and the ubiquity of the remaining elements for granted. However, let us use combinatorics to study the likelihood of what is observed with the null hypothesis of random assembly of chemical compounds.

      Having 6 elements out of the ~ 90 naturally found non-random drawn would be 6!/90! or ~ 1:6*10^9, unless I'm mistaken. The random result would be cells of compounds out of all 90 elements or 90!/90! ~ 1:1 likelihood, of course. Thus a common chemical evolution process is _very_ certain, while we can reject creationists random assembly idea.

      * abiogenesis is a result of chemical evolution, to *very* high certainty.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 28, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        D’oh’s and duh’s:

        “many 5 Gy old habitable planets have life (~ 30 %)” – many 1 Gy old habitable planets have life (~ 30 %).

        At 5 Gy the probability raises to nearly 100 %.

        “~ 1:1 likelihood” – ~ 1:1 probability.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 28, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        For combinations, substitute (6 90) = 90!/6!84! for 6!/90! et cetera; the probabilities should be correct.

    • sasqwatch
      Posted March 30, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      You’re a loonie.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted March 30, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        A brief, but cogent & accurate executive summary!

  29. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    The answer is simple: Rabbis will lose their jobs if they admit that their gods are an infantile genocide-porn fiction.
    They have learned no other fungible skills.

  30. Goliath Field
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    My quick post on secular morality:
    http://ruthlessopinions.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/secular-morality/

    • TreeRooster
      Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      Your post does a good job of breaking down the layers of morality: instinct, culture and religion as hyperactive culture. This is a good basis on which to build a study of the phenomenon of human morality.

      I often wonder whether a secular moralist, or humanist, would agree that the practice of ethics is actually chosen by the individual. That is, that each of us has to pick axioms by which to live (consciously or not), which are fundamental and not derived.

      For instance, we derive experimentally that certain punishments can deter antisocial behavior. We might also decide to be ethical for expedience (to avoid punishment or to foster a better world for the commmon good.) However we arbitrarily can choose to live by a principle, like loving others, whether it helps us or requires our sacrifice.

      We can’t even know if our sacrifices of compassion will improve the survival of humanity in the long run. Plenty of people have argued for less pity, on the grounds that we need to grow stronger. However, if we choose to place love (compassion, vicarious joy, sacrifice for the well-being of others) on a pedestal of ultimate good–is this reason or some kind of secular faith?

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Two easy questions:

    Moshe Averick, who apparently thinks that the origin of life by natural means was impossible since the first fossil organisms we have were already cyanobacteria.

    Amazing. He seems to accept evolution, so Shostak’s spontaneously organized proto-cells would be enough to have a pathway to cells, no matter how unlikely.

    Having hung his god image on the non-existence of pathways, he has now lost it.

    It boils down to his meaningless assertion vs. their equally meaningless one.

    As Samuel Johnson I refute it thusly: place him among a group of killers and rapists who lack his ‘meaningless’ morals and have him kick them.

    What the confused fellow really mean, one suspects, is that moral claims are without religious purpose. Since this is an attack on atheists, it will likely be followed by the meaningless argument “God, therefore God”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 28, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

      Complements:

      – I now see Averick appeared in the comments above. Predictably he disregard the already known potential pathways because we don’t know precisely which one was taken. But that doesn’t get you to a claim of “impossibility”, which is the question.

      Perhaps Averick will notice the problem he has. (Besides the more serious problem of rejecting science in its own field, I mean.)

      – One can also point out the reverse problem for Jacobs, that prison statistics et cetera shows that atheists are acting morally, perhaps better than others. (Whether or not various selection effects are in place, such as amount of money and education.)

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted March 28, 2011 at 3:13 am | Permalink

        Why do you put so much effort into pushing a turd uphill?

        • Helen Wise
          Posted March 28, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

          Thank you. My point, exactly.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted March 28, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          In the real world it is practical to simply bury and forget poisonous turds like religion; I sympathize with the general notion.

          However, it’s not much effort, and the daylight saving change is killing my more useful efforts today. :-/

          Worse would be if Averick is a religious troll, which Coyne’s description remind of. We will see.

  32. Dominic
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Is he suggesting atheists are inherently amoral? If so he is clearly bonkers! To my mind morality comes from self awareness. Children with abnormal brains can become psychopathic. See this article –
    Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication 15 June 2010; doi: 10.1038/mp.2010.74
    What causes that could be environmental –
    http://yvj.sagepub.com/content/7/3/208.short
    but to me that suggests morality emerges from normal human development NOT sky fairies.

    One thing – Marc Hauser – his work is sadly still under a cloud because of his ‘fixing’ of some results –
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Hauser#Scientific_misconduct

  33. Posted March 28, 2011 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    (Ignoring everything the good rabbi has to say, because it’s frankly utter rubbish…)

    I used to think the primary rational purpose of punishment was deterrence, but I have since come to believe it’s more subtle than that.

    There is research which suggests that people who perceive that others are getting away with misdeeds whilst escaping punishment are more likely to commit misdeeds themselves regardless of whether they themselves think they might get caught. It’s not so much, “I used to be honest on my taxes before I realized I would probably never get caught.” Instead, it’s more like, “Well, I used to be honest on my taxes even though I always knew there’s virtually no chance I will get caught, but with these Wall Street fat cats screwing us all over and then running off with the money, well, don’t I deserve a piece of the pie too?” It may not even have to be directly related. “Can you believe that guy who killed his wife got off scot-free on a temporary insanity plea? What’s this world coming to? Doesn’t even seem worth it to be honest on my taxes…”

    If you’ll indulge me some wild evo psych-style speculation, it seems like this would be a useful evolutionary strategy — almost a tit-for-tat, but with the other player being the society you live in rather than an individual. If the society you live in operates in good faith (by punishing wrongdoers) then it makes sense to maintain a general policy of good faith yourself; but if the society you live in is collectively screwing you (by allowing wrongdoers to flourish) then it makes sense to become a wrongdoer yourself — regardless of whether you expect your own potential wrongdoings to be punished in either scenario.

  34. NoAstronomer
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I had friend in high school who could ‘prove’ that 1+1 = 3. By simply continuing to assert his own statement and denying any mathematical arguments his opponent (me) might make until his opponent gave up. Thereupon he would declare victory.

    Mike.

  35. matt
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    “Furthermore, if there is no such thing as free will, then what sense does it make to blame anyone for any action whatsoever? “I felt like it” or “I couldn’t help myself” should be considered perfectly reasonable defenses to any “wrong-doing.”

    how old is this guy? this might have been a reasonable come back or point to make from an 8th grader but, from a grown man? OUCH. it’s absolutely too ridiculous to indulge.

  36. Aqua Buddha
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Moral values exist so long as suffering, injustice, etc. matter to human beings (or any other complex beings). God has no part in it. Divine command theory took about 20 minutes of class time in my “Introductory Ethics” course before it was demolished.

  37. Posted March 30, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    What is a jew?

    • sasqwatch
      Posted March 30, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      gesundheit.

  38. Tony Ryals
    Posted April 11, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    And lest we forget,the Nazi Pope Benedict Ratzinger is a dope as well,
    even if he does gently genuflect at the sound of Darwin’s name……

    http://malta.indymedia.org/node/8810

    Organic-Inorganic Co-evolution

    by Tony Ryals

    Before life made a cell it must have occurred,
    Carbon and minerals wrote their first word,
    It was the basis of the biospheric revolution,
    Organic-inorganic co-evolution,
    From the simplest life-form viral,
    To the most complex evolutionary spiral,
    Dances within a watery solution,
    Using the elements of organic-inorganic co-evolution
    Even the genetic strand has the phosphorous mineral in its carbon configuration
    Phosphorous holds not only the key to energy transformation,
    And life’s respiration
    But is also essential to store life’s genetic information,
    And eventually human intellectualization,
    And what would be chlorophyll,
    Without magnesium its carbon bonds to fill ?,
    Without the magnesium impetus,
    There’d be no photosynthesis,
    And what would be the enzyme nitrogenase,
    Without molybdenum to fill its carbonaceous space,
    Nitrogenase alone would lack the inspiration,
    To perform prokaryotic nitrogen fixation,
    Without molybdenum fertilization,
    And long before hemoglobin came along,
    Other iron-containing heme groups sang their song,
    Before these iron-carbon molecules evolved for respiration,
    They protected oxygen-sensitive molecules from oxidation,
    After photosynthesis led to oxygen’s liberation,
    There’d be no vitamin B-12 or cobalamine,
    If cobalt hadn’t co-evolved with carbon
    To make this vitamin,
    And what to the biosphere would it have meant,
    If selenium hadn’t evolved with carbon
    to form an anti-oxidant,
    Molybdenum calcium iron and sulfur,
    Chromium magnesium potassium copper,
    Liebig’s law of the minimum,
    And law of the maximum,
    You can’t have too much and you can’t have too little,
    You must be somewhere in the middle,
    Copper in feed lots makes pigs grow fast,
    But then their copper-loaded excrement poisons the grass,
    Can’t survive the future without respecting the biosphere’s past,
    The traces of life are in your head,
    Bacteria will use them when you’re dead.


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