Response to Naturalism Sermon

Colin Leitner -- August 20, 2016

Link to the original video

This is a long response, I realize, but I thoroughly enjoy talking about the big questions of life, and science. The speaker in this video has made a lot of troubling statements that need to be addressed. It astonishes me, and breaks my heart that a person with such a lack of understanding of science is teaching people who may not know any better. His misportrayal of science is likely to make the audience confused, creating the false notion that it cannot be trusted. After dismissing science, he uses this supposed hole to endorse Christianity.

In short, his presentation aims to show that a naturalistic worldview is not feasible, despite it being based on logic, and things we can observe- things he would define as true. He never fully explains why any alternative is better. Instead, he refers to Jesus and other various Christian ideas a lot, without giving any reason to believe them.

He can also be observed to be using a variety of public-speaking and persuasion techniques, such as guilting the audience, using common ground like nationality to generate sympathy, creating inaccurate stereotypes, and portraying the naturalistic view as evil.

Just as pastor Mark Clark has no business teaching science without credentials, and certainly no business to discourage its use to understand the world, I will gladly admit that neither am I qualified to assert anything about the topic. One should get information from reliable sources that profess in the topic, and research if they are curious. My response below is made to the best of my ability.

Before my detailed response, a bit about me first: I'm not the most atheistic guy out there. I have a "heart" and I would say I'm quite spiritual and sentimental. I know the universe must be here for some reason, and I would be willing to call that thing "God". But if there was a creator of our universe, so smart, so great, so awesome-- I don't see any reason why a being of such magnitude would write disturbing books that some consider "holy", or manifest as a human on this relatively pathetic speck in space we call "Earth" and have himself killed so he can forgive himself, as some Christians believe. It is much more evident that these stories are inflated by believers, perhaps even originally inspired by a real, mentally unstable man.

For a more comprehensive review of why most people find the text behind Christianity so disturbing, see why humanists reject the Bible.

00:12 First off, I don't think you can call it a debate when there's only one person on stage! And since this talk is in a church, I have a feeling this "debate" has a biased agenda...

04:50 I think his stereotype of "non-religious North-Americans" is quite degrading:

The answers he gives aren't even real answers from people- they are speculations written by Brain Walsh. And he leaves out anything sentimental about North-Americans, portraying us as materialistic robots. It would seem as though he is trying to make the audience feel guilty.

05:50 Asking "what is the best worldview?" is like asking "what is the best colour?" I don't think he will have much luck getting a consensus.

06:00 He seems to be against tolerance? He doesn't think we should try to understand other's opinions?

Haha- it seems like he is trying to say that Canadians are emotionally flawed, and we don't disagree enough. He seems to be using this nationality as a tactic to gain sympathy from the audience. Tricky, tricky, those public speakers...

06:25 He points out the problem that worldviews can't all be correct simultaneously. I agree, with respect to facts about history and the world, since this is a result of logic: conflicting facts cannot both be true. However, a worldview is largely based on personal opinion, and doesn't concern others. Multiple opinions CAN be valid at the same time, as long as they are derived from common, agreed-upon evidence. Like he said, we all have a window through which we view the world. We may each have different windows, but we must all see the same world. Perhaps sometimes our windows are dirty. I think a huge flaw in his presentation is that he is saying that opinions are wrong. But there's no such thing as a wrong opinion. Now, maybe he thinks that the existence of a god is not opinion. Well, in that case, I hope he provides some proof for his specific god. The thing is, if there was proof for a god, faith would not be necessary. And faith is just a cute way of saying, "I have no reason to believe this, but I want to anyway".

Ah: he mentions Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan. Two of many distinguished atheists. This guy, on the other hand, does public speaking for a living. I wouldn't trust scientific information from someone unless they have a degree in the field.

07:00 I think he lays out a reasonable description of naturalism.

08:20 The example he mentioned about the tooth fairy is ironic. He is admitting that the belief in supernatural things is childish. (unless he actually believes in tooth fairies...)

10:25 He seems to be attributing supernatural events to quantum physics phenomena- but these two topics are on completely different scales. It's true, science has much to learn about the quantum world, and new things are being discovered. However, it is a huge mistake to begin accepting other claims as true, merely because we don't understand quantum physics. I think he is just going off the idea that there is more to the universe than we know so far, and I would agree. But the fact that we don't understand everything yet, does not mean anything is possible.

He is wrong that "miracles are now not a problem". Science has never proven or found any miracle, only mystery. If we had in fact found a miracle, we would have proof of a god.

He is right on point: "new constructs are making old constructs look dumb".
Science replaces the myths and stories made by ancient peoples to explain the world.

I don't think he realizes that the discovery of new physics phenomena is still in the domain of naturalism. Perhaps a better way to put it: naturalism is the view that there is no hidden intelligence controlling things.

Also, it is important to note that theories that are solely based on observations will never become wrong, even when science progresses, because an observation will never suddenly become untrue. The explanation only becomes superceded. In regards to his example of Newtonian physics: Newtons laws still apply today, even in light of Einstein's theory of relativity. Newtonian physics got us to the moon! We use them in university physics classes! They do work! Because they simply describe the effects of gravity that we observe, even though we now have better explanations. However, when a theory is not based on observation, but instead, speculation, such as: "God created man out of dust" Then there is no evidence to pin it down. Today, we have observed the evidence which was yet to be seen by biblical authors, and now have a theory that is based on observations: complex chemistry and survival of the fittest, which agrees with more of the evidence we observe in the world.
Also note that "God created man from dust" is a theory, not an observation, because we can't observe that happening today. There is no reason to trust this theory, since it is written along with information we now know to be figurative.

13:00 I think he is exactly right: we cannot prove or disprove metaphysical things while we only exist in a physical world. And this leaves the truth about metaphysical things a mystery, and up to our opinion. However, if a claim is made that involves the physical world at all (such as a god answering a prayer in the physical world), then the situation is in the domain of science. Because physical things are testable.

Also, his point that science can't confirm/deny the existance of a god invalidates his first point that a god is possible because we don't understand everything yet. He just shot himself in the foot. Although, his first point wasn't valid to begin with.

I agree with his claim that a god would be metaphysical, and our only understanding of it would be in our minds. He is absolutely right, science has nothing to say about a metaphysical god- it is simply an opinion in the minds of believers. Not a part of physical reality. There may very well be a metaphysical god that is beyond our scientific discovery. And for that reason, I am agnostic about a deity. However, since science concerns the physical world, we CAN test if a god has any effect on the physical things we can measure. For example, many experiments have been done on prayer, and all have shown that prayer is in fact futile, except to provide mental comfort. And to say that "God only sometimes answers prayer", well, isn't that just luck, then? So, yes, science may never show us that there's a god, but it has shown us that the Christian god (who is supposed to answer prayer at least sometimes) does not interact with the physical world today. In other worlds- maybe.

16:45 Ah- The beginning of the universe, and the ultimate question: "why are we here?".
Right away, he uses the infamous religious person's line: "everything needs a cause, therefore the cause of the universe is God". (the conclusion doesn't even logically follow- why must it have been God?)

His argument that everything needs a cause is a common logical fallacy used by religious people. It is called "passing the buck". The problem with the statement that everything needs a creator is that this means that the creator must have a creator, and its creator then needs a creator... This continues infinitely, and hence the buck is passed. Any time an explanation results in an infinite loop, it means that it is faulty. A possible solution to this is that the universe is created by something that does not have a cause- perhaps a god, or the universe is eternal with or without a god. I don't see a problem with there being a creator, but his argument that everything needs a creator is false.

19:20 Also, there is no problem with saying the universe is eternal, and that the big bang is a part of a cycle. That is one of the many current theories. The big bang doesn't necessarily mean the universe was created. We know when the big bang happened, but we don't know if the universe was actually created then; it could be eternal.

Science can't tell at the moment, but personally I think it is very likely that some god-like thing created the universe, and this "being" is way beyond our comprehension. However, even though this is a possible explanation for our existence, this is not proof for any god, only a theory. And most definitely not a proof for a god who answers prayers, sends souls to Hell, or acts like a human being as ancient books describe.

19:55 There is no experiment that has "told us" that mind must precede matter. How would someone even test that? If a mind is made of matter, matter must come first. I guarantee that inside the head of any mind, is just atoms. A mind is a very specific arrangement of atoms, and that's what makes it special, but atoms nonetheless. If he is trying to say that the "mind" of some god created the universe, then I guess I can't disprove that, but I would not call that a "mind" in the classical sense.

He is absolutely wrong that you need a god to study physics and the reality of the universe. God is never mentioned in physics class (anymore, at least, thank goodness!) although, I'll admit that when I get goosebumps in physics from being amazed by something, I often think "if there is a god, it sure was a genius."

20:30 122 constants? I don't think so. Look at this wikipedia article. Any more than 19 are just derived from the original 19. Also, this number changes often as we refine our theories. We decide how many constants there are.

21:54 He said "1 to the 10 to the 132nd power". The numerical result of that calculation = 1. This guy has no idea what he's talking about.

I'm assuming he actually meant 1 × 10132

He now invokes the common argument of intelligent design, claiming that the unlikeliness of the physical constants are proof of a god's creative mind. Just about every theist uses this argument. Of course, it is flawed, and I'll explain why.
He says that there is such a small chance of the constants being what they are. But how would anyone know that? Calculating a probability for a constant doesn't even make sense: for example, if I were to pick a random number between 1 and infinity, what are the chances of picking 7? There is no way to calculate that. We don't know anything about how the constants are determined, and so we can't comment on its likelihood.

Similarly, we have only ever observed one universe, and so we don't know if other combinations are even possible, or able to test probabilities. Maybe our universe is the only kind there could have been, and no special effort was needed to make it the way it is. How do we know that our combination of constants are not the only combination of constants possible? Some may be tempted to think that the existence of humans makes our universe special, but our apparent superiority over other forms of life is explained by evolution. (covered later)

To say we are lucky to exist doesn't really mean anything. Are we lucky that the sky is blue? Are we lucky to have two legs instead of four? It's just the way things are. I realize that this is an opinion, but I wonder what lucky really means in this context.

Or what if the universe was made slightly differently, and an alien species existed instead of us. They could say the same thing: "we are so lucky that the universe is the way it is". It is selfish to think that other possibilities are not just as valid.

Despite being logically flawed, I understand the argument that we must exist because of something. Perhaps a god did craft this universe. But there is an important distinction to be made: it could be said that something created all this, but in no way does that prove the Christian god's existence specifically, which the speaker seems to be arguing.

24:55 Theists don't know where physics came from any more than a physicist. If any holy book had any useful information about physics in it, all of science would reference it. Also, that knowledge would make a good case for such a book's divine origins. The truth is though, holy books haven't been very useful for anything other than stories.

26:30 He makes it seem like Christianity is the only solution to this problem of "where did the universe come from". There are literally infinite theories. Some outdated, like creation myths, and some newer, like the big bang. We've been making them for thousands of years; we may never get it right.

27:40 Now he moves the intelligent design argument over to biology: the human form.
He is wrong that single-celled organisms are "packed" with information:
A graph plotting various organisms and their DNA content.
Source here.

It is clear from the graph that simpler organisms contain less "information" (base pairs). Their relative simplicity settles the problem of "such complex things could not just pop into existence". Notice how the bacteria in the diagram is almost touching the zero mark, indicating that they are nothing more than complex chemistry, and can indeed be created by chance. Other animals (including humans) have evolved from that to be much more complex.

The amount of DNA in cells can increase (or decrease) by mutation. Bits are added and removed randomly during reproduction. If this was not the case, everyone's child would be a clone of the parents! Also, there would be no such thing as cancer if mutations never occurred in cells!

As we see today, it turns out that more complex creatures (ones with more DNA) can perform better (in general; there are many exceptions, like some Amoeba). Humans are the main example: we are complex, and very good at survival. Creatures who have this favourable trait of complexity means that we are more likely to survive long enough to reproduce, (in a harsh environment) thus, more complex organisms exist.

Evolution is a well-proven theory; no one should be doubting it in the 21st century. To see all the evidence for it, see here. The Smithsonian is a very good source for information about the natural world.

29:15 New species have in fact been observed. The important thing to note is that species are not spontaneously created- evolution is a very slow gradual process. So of course we will not observe a new species being created all of a sudden in nature. Offspring would never be born and suddenly be a new species. The example he mentioned of the fly is a case where a new species was actually created spontaneously, because its DNA was intentionally modified enough to make a significant enough change for us to notice immediately. DNA does not naturally change very much at a time in nature, and is why kids look similar to parents, not a new species.

Here are a few examples of new species created by evolution, contrary to his claim that we see none.

The guy he quotes uses the term "historical science". This term, invented by religious fundamentalists, does not exist in serious scientific literature, and is a red flag that this scientist has no credibility. Science and history are two different things. The laws of physics are the same today as they were a billion years ago.

He is wrong that evolution is an unproven theory: it is a fact. We rarely observe "natural, slow, progressive growth" in fossils, because fossils are snapshots of a species, and usually abrupt. Contrary to this though, we do, of course, have skulls that show the transition from an earlier species (Austrapolithecus) to Homo Sapien.

We have evolved, end of story.

Skulls showing human ancestors back to other species.

34:00 He continues to describe the cell as being such a complex thing. He forgets that cells are what makes up animals, and are the result of evolution. They have evolved with us. He's right: no thing as complex as a human cell could come out of nowhere. They are evolved from lesser things.

36:20 He was so close to saying that his own theory that 'God creating everything' has no evidence, but he stopped himself.... He knows he's on thin ice.

All the other theories he mentioned just goes to show that literally anyone can create a theory- even people in ancient times writing a religious text.

38:00 It's pretty obvious that most complex animals are conscious, just like us. Also, animals do grieve and have feelings, and know how to have fun. As evolution predicts, all human traits, even mental ones, are observed in some form in animals.

Wikipedia's article on empathy has a section that talks about how other animals are similar to humans. The bottom line is, humans are not special. Mentally, physically, or our place in the universe, we're just a random species here by chance.

And what's wrong with that? We can't be sad that we're not special in a universal sense. But we can make things special. We can give meaning to life, we can choose to live, and love, and spread happiness. We may not be inherently special, but we can make our lives special.

39:00 Again, just because we do not yet understand how the brain works, doesn't mean it is magical, or created by a god. Brains are made of atoms, and therefore will be understandable by science. Yes, we are conscious, and that is a mystery. But as far as anyone can tell, consciousness is merely a specific arrangement of atoms: an emergent property. We can think, but the atoms and matter that we are made of cannot. It's the arrangement that matters.

41:40 His statement of the fact that we cannot trust our "cognitive faculties" is not exclusive to naturalism. Notice how he doesn't offer a solution- because there is none. Like he said, "We cannot know if we are butterflies dreaming we are humans". We just can't. Nor can we know if we're in the Matrix, or brains in a vat, or Avatars. He falsely attributes this to naturalism, and uses this to make it seem flawed. But this is not a "problem" as he calls it. It is simply a result of being a conscious thing.

He is right that early humans invented gods to explain things, and make their societies work. Everyone knows these gods from the past: Zeus, Thor, Neptune, etc. And everyone knows they are part of ancient mythology. They were created, and died out, just like the gods of today's religions will someday.

He is also right that we cannot trust our own minds. And this is important, because this is how people "know" and "feel" their gods. It is a delusion in people's head when they "feel the holy spirit". In our heads we feel love, fear, awe, among many things, and have ideas. But none of these things exist outside our heads. They are just feelings, like the feeling of being in touch with a god. There is no physical form of thoughts and feelings in our minds.

The reason science wins out here, is that scientific evidence does NOT come from in our minds- it comes from the outside world (hopefully you trust that) and is our anchor to reality. We CAN know if things are true by testing them.

43:30 His argument that "you can't trust a being that was created by a random process" doesn't make sense. Why can't you? The conclusion doesn't follow- how does a being's method of creation have anything to do with how trustworthy it is? I think a better way to determine how much we should trust someone is by checking what they say, and building a reputation.

43:50 His stories of aborting inferior babies is heartbreaking. However, if that's what the parent wants, what's wrong with that? It is the most logical course of action. The parent's wishes are fulfilled and the baby does not live a life of suffering. If suffering is prevented, I would argue that is the moral thing to do. Yes, the loss of life is shocking; it is a natural reaction to fear death- something that kept our early ancestors alive. But he never explains what exactly was wrong with those specific cases.

Instead, he takes the shock that everyone feels, and attributes it to naturalism in another attempt to further degrade it. That is a wicked misuse of human nature on his part.

Although it may be true that animals generally want a healthy tribe, I think the mental impulse of caring for one's young is much greater. And that is why most people are initially shocked by these ideas, me included. It is a built-in response.
In the harsh, prehistoric world, the fact that one is alive and has lived long enough (to a child-bearing age) is enough merit that they are "good enough" to reproduce. And so the desperation of keeping their children safe is in fact, in the best interest of the group. However, like he says, there are times when this is overridden, such as when the parent knows there's no hope for the child, and abandonment is the best choice.

This is complicated to understand, and if one is interested in abandonment in nature, and care for offspring, then I suggest doing research before concluding all death is bad. Death is a fact of life.
Abortion in human society does lead into a very sensitive ethical conversation, which I will refrain from getting too far into here.

45:45 Is he saying we are not descendant of people who made abortions? Have none of our ancestors aborted anyone? How would anyone even know that?

48:00 His theory that a process like evolution wouldn't create empathetic creatures is false. Empathy is a direct product of evolution, because creatures who help others of their own kind create a group that works together and survives better. Besides- our existence disproves that. We have evolved, and we're empathetic!

Of course we would help a drowning person. Because it is in our brain circuitry, and that's what most (healthy) people would do. We have the tendency to help others because that's beneficial to our species' survival.

He may have a huge misunderstanding of "survival of the fittest". Survival of the fittest is not about people killing each other, or our actions towards others at all. It is the observation that, in nature, individuals who are more suited to their environment are more likely to survive. Nature eliminates the unfit, not members of the same species. It is beneficial to be empathetic, and loving because helping others improves the health of the overall group.

What I think he is bringing up is the fact that natural selection/survival of the fittest no longer exists in human society today, because we have advanced so much, and are now separate from nature. The idea of eliminating inferior members from society is not natural selection, and has nothing to do with evolution. He is right- it is against our nature, and we can feel it. Instead, this is called artificial selection because we would be intelligently shaping our species, rather than the slow, partially random process of natural selection.

49:50 You cannot compare the ethics of different species of animals. Look at it this way- maybe a shark thinks that humans shaking hands is offensive. We think it's normal, just as the shark thinks their method of reproduction is normal. There are so many examples of how moral codes differ between groups. Take The Masai tribe for instance (an ethnic African group found in Kenya and Tanzania). They spit on one another as a greeting. They think it's respectful, but we wouldn't agree! And yet they manage; they get along with this alternate system.

What we consider moral is based on our own requirements and heritage. Morality is not based on universal concepts.

50:20 The argument that morality must come from a god is commonly used by theists. I think I've already explained enough how it is actually a product of evolution. I mean, doesn't it just make sense? Creatures who don't kill each other, but rather, love and support each other, live better and longer? We don't need a god to tell us that cutting people's heads off is bad. Or atheists don't, at least. That's literally what he is saying.

His logic at the end here is falling apart terribly...

The first question he answers invalidates his former argument, as I've already done.
"If everything needs a creator, then what created God?"
Part of his answer: "we don't need to ask that question"
You've got to be kidding me. That is the pinnacle of closed-minded thinking.

As for the prayer at the end, as heart-felt as it was,
I find it rather silly to communicate with something that doesn't exist.