James Kirk Wall responds to Intelligent Design and NDE argument for faith

First I would like to thank Rajiv Sobhee for his willingness to engage and publicize this discussion. Rajiv represents many people who believe in a greater intelligence but don’t subscribe to Christianity or any organized religion.

In his essay Mr. Sobhee uses the classic complexity argument for design, has a brief blurb on quantum physics, and includes some discussion on Near Death Experience (NDE) to demonstrate the validity of faith. He also heavily criticizes scientists like Richard Dawkins in accusing them of selling their atheistic interpretations as truth.

My response will include the following:
• The mosquito was never designed to draw blood
• NDE is common and unimpressive
• Quantum physics is both mysterious and irrelevant
• In defense of Richard Dawkins

The mosquito was never designed to draw blood
Mosquitos – Nectar to Blood Adaptation

mosquito

Today’s mosquito has precision components for blood feeding from the species’ physical mechanisms that pierce skin to animal sensory capabilities and saliva that prevents blood clotting. It truly is a formidable, irritating, maddening and yet remarkable insect. If you think of this creature as having a built in static blood feeding requirement, the only conclusion is design. Under that ideology the architecture and complexity of the components involved could not have come about by small and blind generational changes. There must have been a guided design. But when you think of mosquitoes in a different way, it changes the dynamics completely creating a paradigm shift.

When you think of a mosquito having an ancestor that developed a sharp proboscis for feeding on the nectar of certain plants, and then made a transition from nectar to blood, the conclusion is adaptation. The mosquito was never designed to draw blood. There was no original architecture for that species with a specific goal in mind. The evidence we find in nature points to adaptation. This evidence is found in the great amounts of time involved with transitional periods and the fact that over 99% of newly developed species are extinct. What we know as the Cambrian Explosion where “rapid” evolution happened was still a time period of millions of years.

In his argument Rajiv uses many examples of complexity, but this doesn’t demonstrate design. Years ago Michael Behe made the argument for irreducible complexity, stating that certain components of life are so complex and integrated that they could only have come about by design. But since then Behe’s argument has been debunked by scientists such as Ken Miller who have demonstrated how complex biological systems could be broken down into smaller components that still function.

The example typically used in complexity arguments is the bacterial flagellum.

bacterial fagelum
Figure 1: The eubacterial flagellum. The flagellum is an ion-powered rotary motor, anchored in the membranes surrounding the bacterial cell. This schematic diagram highlights the assembly process of the bacterial flagellar filament and the cap-filament complex. OM, outer membrane; PG, peptidoglycan layer; IM, cytoplasmic membrane (From Yonekura et al 2000). [1]

type III
Figure 2: There are extensive homologies between type III secretory proteins and proteins involved in export in the basal region of the bacterial flagellum. These homologies demonstrate that the bacterial flagellum is not "irreducibly complex." In this diagram (redrawn from Heuck 1998), the shaded portions of the basal region indicate proteins in the E. coli flagellum homologous to the Type III secretory structure of Yersinia. . OM, outer membrane; PP, periplasmic space; CM, cytoplasmic membrane. [1]

When it comes to intelligent design, many scientists have also countered with designs that were not intelligent such as our inability to detect certain gases that can kill us. As mentioned, other arguments against design is the timeline and failures observed in evolution. The Great Pyramids of Giza were the result of failure after failure after failure. We have archaeological remains of earlier pyramids that collapsed. So let’s suppose the Great Pyramids became the gold copy of a design after the Egyptians got it right.

Imagine the ancient Egyptians with design in hand setting off to another continent to build pyramids. What would we expect? Because there is a design, we expect efficiency and success. We would not expect to find remnants of failures in the new continent. When we examine the evidence for evolution, do we find efficiency and predominant success? No, we find inefficiency and predominant failure.

For a billion years this planet had nothing but single-celled life forms before a multi-celled creature was formed. A billion years! Does that sound like design? Over 99% of species that ever existed on earth are extinct. Were they designed to fail?

To be clear, evolution is a fact. This is not an argument of evolution vs. intelligent design; it’s an argument of whether or not there is an intelligent design component in evolution. Rajiv believes there is evidence of an invisible hand, I don’t. Evolution by natural selection is the best explanation for species diversity. It is also the best explanation for good and evil. Nature doesn’t care about what humans define as good and evil traits.

Nature only cares about survival and offspring. Humans have attributes such as love and compassion because our species needed these things in order to survive, and in that we should find great comfort. On the flip side what we consider flaws of character such as greed also helped our ancestors survive. The battle of good and evil isn’t about which is stronger, it’s about what you’re fighting for.

Lastly in the argument against complexity favoring design is the fact that if really complicated things were designed, whatever designed them had to be even more complicated, and so where did that design come from? Rajiv brings up this dilemma, but never addresses it. In the universe we observe a pattern of simple to complex: Hydrogen to heavier elements, single-cell to multi-celled life. Empirical evidence does not favor complexity to simplicity being the nature of the universe.

There are people who argue that what we observe in our universe somehow favors a greater intelligence that exists beyond time and space. But if First Cause came about from another dimension, it could have been a quantum fluctuation with no intelligence or purpose at all that ignited the Big Bang according to some cosmologists.

Theists argue it must be god. Atheists argue it must be the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The fact that many planets and moons look like meatballs clearly provides evidence for the atheists. All joking aside, the truth is that any claim as to what exists beyond our perceptions and philosophies is unsubstantiated speculation. And anyone claiming such a possibility not only exists but gives them authority over others is deserving of ridicule. Question everything and worship nothing is the motto of a good skeptic.

NDE is common and unimpressive

vortex

If you have a near death experience, the following stimuli are common:
1. Hearing strange sounds
2. Feelings of peace
3. Feelings of painlessness
4. Out-of-body experiences
5. Experiencing a tunnel vortex
6. Rising into the sky
7. Seeing a bright light and beings of light
8. Experiencing a life review
9. Reluctance to return

This is regardless of race or religion and people will decipher the experience in different ways.
Christian – My NDE proves Heaven is true!
Hindu – My NDE proves Reincarnation is true!
Confucian – My NDE proves the Spirit World is true!
Atheist – My NDE was cool, but it didn’t prove anything.

NDE has excited theists as some accounts appear to provide strong evidence for the soul. A common account is to be floating above the body looking down at it. Various accounts include a blind man coming back to life and stating that his doctors’ shirt was brown, and it was brown. Other accounts include hearing conversations, while the heart was stopped and the brain was not showing activity, that later were verified to be true by eye witness testimony. Another account was floating into the next room and seeing the way people were seated which later was verified, once again, by eye witness testimony.

Rajiv Sobhee states that people who had NDEs pushed his needle over to theism. In fact he states that “God was undeniably unofficially proven to me.” For me, I’m not impressed. People making supernatural claims about their personal NDE don’t impress me anymore than faith healers or mediums making paranormal assertions. Seems to me there is a lot of desperation to believe that someone who saw a red shoe on the road while having a NDE, and there was indeed a red shoe on the road, somehow proves the afterlife.

People selling books about their experience often make claims of seeing or hearing things that would have been physically impossible to do because the occurrences happened away from the body. And yet in controlled situations when a message was projected upwards near the ceiling to test if people who experienced NDE could repeat what it said, no one could.

There are those who claim that NDE proves the afterlife, but many people who die and come back don’t experience anything. There are some people who claim to have seen hell. Perhaps they felt guilty about the way they were living and that was projected onto their NDE. Extremely few people have negative near death experiences. There are some people who claim to have been an atheist, but then converted after a NDE. There are also atheists who had a NDE and stayed atheists.

Some people claim that they felt a wonderful kind of love that must have been god. If there was some all-powerful being that just wanted us to feel really good, why do we experience pain? If there is a higher intelligence we would expect it to have far more dimensions than love, an emotion that’s easily induced (at least temporarily) through drugs and alcohol.

One of the so called supernatural sensations often claimed in NDEs is Outer Body Experience (OBE). But you don’t need an oxygen starved brain in order to get one. OBEs can occur through electronic stimulus to the temporal lobe, experiencing G-forces in a flight simulator, drugs or meditation. And when it comes to so called vivid dreams or surreal experiences that are also reported, you don’t even need drugs. Many of us have dreamed of falling where we wake up startled pushing our hands out to break a fall that isn’t there. If you’re a man having a vivid dream of standing in front of a urinal about to relieve yourself, you better wake up quickly.

The bottom line is if you’re looking for evidence of the afterlife in NDE, you’ll find it. If you’re looking to debunk evidence for the afterlife in NDE, you’ll find it. If you truly take a non-biased approach and weigh the evidence, you’re probably not going to be impressed with any claims of supernaturalism.

Quantum physics is both mysterious and irrelevant

Apologist William Lane Craig once brought up a calculus expression for probability in a debate with Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman on whether or not god was real. He went into great detail describing this mathematical formula. What did this actually have to do with the argument? Absolutely nothing as any numbers made-up to populate variables in the formula would be subjective. This would also imply that any grandiose claim made by anyone would be deserving of a probability number. But the people not paying attention will come away from the debate thinking mathematics somehow support Craig’s argument for the resurrection of Jesus.

In his argument for the validity of faith, Mr. Sobhee brings up the quantum physics double slit experiment. What relevance does this have on the higher intelligence argument? Why does matter sometimes act like particles and other times act like waves? The experiment was so baffling that the scientists tried to place an electronic measuring device to get a closer view on what was actually happening. The measuring devise altered the behavior of moving matter. Rajiv claims this means human consciousness was affecting the results and that could mean an even greater intelligence could be affecting everything. However, the measuring device was not a human eye and a machine could make a recording without direct observation. So unless machines have a consciousness, how could that be a factor?

The strangest behavior can be found in Quantum Entanglement where a mysterious correlation is formed between particles where no matter what the distance is between them, if one synchronization is disturbed, so is the other. We don’t understand why this is, but we are building technology off of it such as quantum computing. If god is indeed a shrinking pocket of scientific ignorance, he has retreated into Alice’s Wonderland of Quantum Mechanics.

There are scientists who claim that human minds can affect quantum energy. But if true would this come from specific thoughts or simply brain function that increases electronic impulses? Doesn’t electricity effect magnetic fields and thereby could affect quantum particles? Didn’t the observation device used in the double-slit experiment run on electricity and couldn’t it have been that circuit which altered the results? As mysterious as the quantum universe is, the macro universe we live in is very much predictable. We can measure the location of an object by speed and direction. So what relevance does quantum physics have on the question of a greater intelligence even if thoughts could cause quantum vibrations?

There was a time when we didn’t know what caused lightning. Did that provide evidence for god? Long ago many people believed that lightning was caused by an angry deity. Some joked if that were true; god appeared to be very angry at trees. Does quantum ignorance favor a higher intelligence argument? The answer is no.

Mysteries such as Quantum Entanglement don’t make empirical evidence and reason obsolete. Quantum entanglements are lost whenever the particles involved are disturbed. In regards to quantum mechanics, there are instances where the behavior of subatomic particles are predictable. Through magnetic fields we can control and collide protons in the Large Hadron Collider. We are able to calculate where these subatomic particles will be based on position, direction and speed at least in a controlled environment. The fact that we can do this means that these subatomic particles do follow certain laws and do contain a certain level of predictability.

Some argue that when we die we have some kind of connected energy. That’s fine, but without memory or consciousness, so what? We all know what happens when a brain is damaged let alone dies and disintegrates. When a brain is severely damaged our memories and personalities are altered. When a brain dies why wouldn’t we expect memories, personality and consciousness to be dead with it? That may not be what we desire, but the search for truth isn’t about what makes us feel good. Empirical evidence does not favor god or an afterlife.

In defense of Richard Dawkins

I took great issue with Richard Dawkins’ attack on the agnostic term in his book The God Delusion. Should I hold onto that grudge? Should I hate the man? If I did that I would have never read The Greatest Show on Earth which took my knowledge of evolution to the next level. Through video lectures and books Professor Dawkins has given me a great deal of scientific knowledge. I am deeply grateful for that gift.

It is obvious that Mr. Sobhee has an enormous bias against Dawkins, but why? In his article he states, “It is important to define Atheism with respect to a religious principle or from a universal absolute perspective.” But a universal absolute is not how most people define atheist today. In fact, Dawkins himself admitted to not having absolute certainty on the question of god. So is the reason for Rajiv’s anger a misguided perception? And both Rajiv and Dawkins reject the god of Abraham. Are they really so far apart?

“People like Richard Dawkins are selling their interpretations as truth but in so doing sadly misleading millions of people around the world.” This is a statement Mr. Sobhee makes close to the end of his argument. He makes this attack but provides nothing to back it up. General attacks like this are meaningless. Dawkins has presented the evidence for evolution strictly by natural means and his conclusion. Mr. Sobhee is free, just as anyone is, to disagree with Dawkins’ conclusion, but can he disagree with the evidence? And the notion that anyone who disagrees with Mr. Sobhee isn’t rounded enough in their education or isn’t using “whole brain” thinking is nonsense.

When it comes to misleading people, here in the States we have people trying to teach kids that the earth is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs were on the ark in the great flood that really happened. If Rajiv would like to battle those who are truly misleading people, I suggest he focuses his efforts into advocating science rather than attacking Charles Darwin’s modern day bulldog.

“It is not who is right, but what is right, that is of importance.” – Thomas Huxley

-James Kirk Wall

References:
[1] The Flagellum Unspun
The Collapse of "Irreducible Complexity"
Kenneth R. Miller
http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/design2/article.html

Early Life: Single-Celled Organisms
http://www.learner.org/courses/envsci/unit/text.php?unit=1&secNum=7

How Near-death Experiences Work
http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/extrasensory-perceptions/near-death-experience4.htm

Near Death Experience (NDE)
http://www.skepdic.com/nde.html

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