Monday 4 June 2012

Twenty questions atheists struggle to answer - questions 7 to 11 discussed

Last week I put together a list of twenty questions that, in my experience, atheists either ‘won’t or can’t answer’ and invited coherent responses.

I was not, in posting these, saying that atheists have no answers to them, only that as yet in over forty years of discussion with them I am yet to hear any good ones.

The post generated 2,400 page views and 52 comments in a week and ten people attempted to take up the challenge by answering the questions. 

I posted my own answers to the first six yesterday and now follow with the next five.

7. How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?

There are 6,909 languages in the world according to the Ethnologue. It is clear that languages evolve, both over time (Spoken Chaucerian English would not be recognised by a contemporary English speaker) and by borrowing words from other languages.

There are similarities between the Slavic, Germanic and Baltic languages and they are all also related to Latin and Greek. It would perhaps therefore be easy to conclude that all languages are related to each other in some way but this is not actually the case.

In fact the above languages have similarities because they are among the 426 languages that belong to the Indo-European language family (see diagram). No less than 45% of the world’s population speak an Indo-European language.

Overall, however, there are 116 different language families. Six of these, account for nearly two-thirds of all languages and five-sixths of the world’s population. But the remaining 110 account for only one sixth of the world’s population and some of them are spoken by less than 1,000 people.

Each of these language families, in spite of some borrowed words from other families, is distinct with respect to vocabulary and grammar, and all of them are very complex.

How did this situation arise? Some linguists believe that all the world’s languages trace back to one proto-human language over 50,000 years ago, but that they have each evolved so much in the intervening time that no recognisable traces of the proto-language now remain. Others believe that there were many different proto-languages which arose spontaneously in different parts of the world.

The biblical record attributes the world’s varied languages to a supernatural confusion (multiplication) of languages by God occasioned by the building of the tower of Babel. We are told that originally all the world’s people spoke one language, but that when they began working together in rebellion against God he supernaturally caused them to speak different languages so that they would be unable to understand each other and would be divided from each other and spread all over the world.

Is this plausible? Well if the God in which Christians, Jews or Muslims actually exists then surely he would be able to do such a thing and may wish to. But does it fit the evidence?

 In fact, if such an event had occurred, then the very thing we would expect to find is a large number of distinct language families each with its own complex vocabulary and grammar, which is exactly what we do find.

This of course does not prove the biblical account, but it is entirely consistent with it.

The atheist alternatives, that all languages arose from one proto-human language or that all language families arose spontaneously and independently, may also be true. But neither of these alternative theories appears falsifiable or verifiable. 

The origin of 116 distinct language families is a question atheism struggles to answer.

8. Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC? 

This was perhaps my clumsiest worded question and my critics have taken great delight in pointing out that Australia did not have a city until 1788 and that Antarctica has never had one! Furthermore some cities predated 3,000BC. All this is of course true.

Wikipedia has a list of earliest cities by continent from which it can be gleaned that the oldest cities in other regions of the world date from 5,000BC (Byblos, Middle East), 5,000BC (Argos, Europe), 3,500BC (Delhi, South Asia), 2,000BC (Luoyong, China), 3,200BC (Luxor, Africa) and 2,000BC (Quito, South America).

I should have checked more carefully, but in fact most of the earliest cities were still built over a relatively narrow historical range of 3,000 or so years starting in about 5,000BC.

Why is this important? Well it raises an important question. If, as we are told, ‘anatomically modern’ humans originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, reaching full behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago then why did it take them so long to get their act together and why did people in very diverse parts of the world suddenly all start building cities in the same narrow time frame?

One might argue that the building of cities requires a certain level of technology, but this just moves the question back one step to ask why it took man in ‘full behavioural modernity’ 45,000 years to develop this technology and why it was suddenly developed all over the world in such a small window of time.

Perhaps modern man is not quite as old as we think.

9. How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
11. How is free will possible in a material universe?

These two questions are really two sides of the same coin as free will flows from independent thought. So I will consider them together.

If the world is entirely ruled by chance (random processes) and necessity (dictated by invariable physical laws) then how do we account for independent thought?

We all have the impression that our thoughts are under our own conscious control; that we can choose what to think about and what ideas to pursue.

But how could this be so if the thoughts in our minds are nothing but electrical currents flowing through neuronal circuitry?  Would this not mean that our thoughts themselves are simply programmed and determined by physical laws?

And would this therefore not also include the very thought that our thoughts are nothing but electrical currents flowing through neuronal circuitry? And if so how can we be sure that this thought, or any thought for that matter, are in fact true?

It would seem that we cannot have it both ways. If independent thought is not possible then we can only think and say what we are programmed to think and say. But this is not our human experience.  We all think we have more control over our thoughts, feelings and decisions than that.

But equally if independent thought and free will are actually possible then  it would imply that our thoughts and decisions are not in fact simply the product of chance and necessity.

Independent thought and free will are things that atheism struggles to explain.

This is not a problem for theism in the same way, which believes in a dimension beyond the merely physical, and holds that chance and necessity are not the only causes operating in the world.

The intricacies of the mind-body problem have occupied philosophers for millennia and are beyond the scope of this short article, but a materialistic world view based on atheism is too simplistic to explain its intricacies.

10. How do we account for self-awareness?

This question builds on 9 and 11. Each of us has what we might call a sense of self.

Other people can observe our behaviour and listen to our speech and then make reasonable deductions about what we are thinking and feeling. They might even, with sophisticated enough equipment, place electrodes into our brains and detect electrical signals that produce certain feelings and sensations. We might even say that it could one day become possible for others to read our thoughts and feelings in this way.

But other people cannot think our thoughts, sense our pain, nor feel our feelings in the same way that we do. It is we alone who have that private access to them.

But what is the self that thinks these thoughts and has these sensations and feelings?

Atheists are materialists, believing that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of physical phenomena.

This has led some atheists to suggest that self-awareness results when electrical circuitry becomes sufficiently sophisticated and that one day we might be able to make computers that are self-aware. But they struggle to explain how circuitry alone can produce a subjective sense of self. This is not a problem for theism in the same way, as theists believe that the merely physical is not all that exists.


  1. Without even having read the answers produced, I´d bet that the problem isn´t that the answers aren´t "good enough", but that they don´t comply with your own world view. Anyhho, lack of a "good" scientific answer does not validate "good" made up answers without a trace of science to them..

    1. You admit to not reading the answers and then give a critical answer to them.

      Answer this for me with good scientific answers.

      1) How did life begin and support your answer with actual factual evidence.

      2) How did the first single cellular creature evolve into the first multi-cellular creature.

      Made up answers without scientific evidence to them is no answer at all.

  2. My contention in posing these 20 questions is that theism has more explanatory power in answering them than atheism does. The issue of a prior commitment worldview commitment is an important one but it applies just as much to atheists as it does to theists.

    Many atheists assume the truth of the atheistic world view as a non-negotiable starting point and are accordingly strongly resistant to questioning it.

    As Richard Lewontin, a world famous geneticist at Harvard, has said:

    ‘ We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… because we have a prior materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.'

    This means that when good answers are advanced for theism they reject them a priori because they are unwilling to contemplate the possibility that they might be wrong.

    1. This means that when good answers are advanced for theism they reject them a priori because they are unwilling to contemplate the possibility that they might be wrong.

      That is simply not true. A good answer, what science would call a theory, is one that can withstand the most strenuous testing using known facts. It is not something that we conclude from reading an age old book which was put together by people who ignored science.

      Again you use the word 'many':
      Many atheists assume the truth of the atheistic world view as a non-negotiable starting point and are accordingly strongly resistant to questioning it.

      'Many' is an ambiguous term, it can mean anything from 3 upwards and should never be used without some qualifier. You deliberately used this so as you cannot be held accountable.

      I believe that your claim here is false and certainly that the vast majority of atheists have come to atheism after being brought up to believe in theism. Among atheists that I know this is certainly true and it is also true that most atheists I know have a greater knowledge of religion than those I know who are theists.

      Science is always willing to accept that it is wrong and it is in fact a great honour in science to be able to provide a better theory than that which has preceded it - this has never been true with theism.

  3. "Many atheists assume the truth of the atheistic world view as a non-negotiable starting point and are accordingly strongly resistant to questioning it."

    Motes and beams.

  4. I'm not a Biblical literalist, so some of these questions/answers are not a matter of theism vs atheism to me. They raise interesting anthropological and historical points, but proof one way or the other doesn't prove or disprove theism or atheism.

    The tales of the old testament are often allegorical not literal. Parables, not historical accounts. I believe the creation story, Job, Jonah and the Babel story to be among those because of the strong moral points they make and their improbability (e.g. the strong satire in Jonah or the idea of a woman being actually created from a man's rib). I'm not saying it's things God can't do, just that it doesn't seem in his nature to actually do them. God could create the natural laws of physics and let the universe work everything out for itself.

    Otherwise the philosophical points are sound. No one can or ever will be able to explain how perception and actually work.

    1. wrt Job. Your god saved Job after Job had offered his (virgin) daughters up for rape by a bunch of thugs.

      I cannot think of many worse things anyone could do whether it is supposed to be allegorical or not.

      The message anyone would glean from this is that its ok to offer your daughters to be raped in order to save a stranger.

      You can now continue to tell me how I am misreading this (and another almost identical story) in the bible.

    2. I can indeed :-)

      It was actually Lot rather than Job and God protected his daughters from the homosexual gang rapists at his door so that no one actually laid a hand on them.

      Sodom was then destroyed although the name lives on attached to certain types of sexual behaviour (See Genesis 19).

      If you are going to quote the Bible maybe you should read it first!

    3. "You can now continue to tell me how I am misreading this (and another almost identical story) in the bible."

      "It was actually Lot rather than Job and God protected his daughters from the homosexual gang rapists at his door so that no one actually laid a hand on them."


      The point with allegory is that it didn't really happen. Job's trials never happened. The traveller whom the Samaritan rescued never existed. Jonah was never swallowed by a fish. They are tales that have a moral point.

      e.g. Job shows that pain and suffering is not a punishment for one's personal sin and the most righteous faith is that found in those who suffer the most.

      Jonah shows that God will forgive those that truly repent even if their sin warrants death. Also that it is for God and not for man to judge someone's eternal fate.

      Genesis shows that the God we worship created all things with a rational order and purpose; also that we are special amongst the creatures of Earth but still have the responsibility of stewardship. It also shows that man and woman were created as equals with separate purpose and are made with each other in mind. It also says that our intellect is a mixed blessing: whilst it allows us to discover the world around us, it also allows us to choose evil over good (making sin possible) and makes birth more difficult for women.

      Much of the Old Testament is like this. It is an interpretation of the world around the Jews that has many fundamental truths woven throughout. If you want to take a passage and quote it out of context in order to attack the Church, remember that Christians laugh at such foolish arguments. The Bible isn't the Koran: we don't take every verse literally.

  5. Hmmm. My responses keep disappearing after several hours. I wonder why that could be? Are you deleting them in the hopes that people will assume I used bad words? All I did was (correctly) point out your status as the single greatest reason for anyone who is reading this to completely disregard the Christian faith, an otherwise perfectly respectable religion.

    Or maybe, just maybe, your carefully constructed wall of denial and self importance is starting to crumble. You cannot stand to acknowledge the fact that you are a joke to some and an embarrassment to 1.5 billion others. You could just ignore what I wrote, like you have ignored literally everything else I and others have written that does not consist of praise for you as the second coming of Jesus, but if you do not have the last word then you just can't live with yourself.

    Or maybe this is all just a computer glitch or something. That must be it, since you have such impeccable integrity.

    1. Yes ZK, there's a global conspiracy against your towering intellect and reserved and restrained approach to debate. Obviously your posts have been deleted because you made such good points that the nasty doctor just couldn't handle them.

      If they were anything like your posts on other topics I expect nothing of value has been lost.

  6. Oh, gods of the gaps, your carved up bodies keep spreading. Just about every hole in the temple of science is now stuffed with a piece of a god - the whole thing looks like a pretty gruesome murder and dismemberment case.

    Here Saunders is busy stuffing yet more chopped up pieces of his favorite deity, whatever it is, into wall openings.

    How do languages drift apart? When did the first language appear? Science doesn't know? Hey, here's a nice piece of god that will fit in.


    You say that in order to close the opening I need to actually PROVE the Tower of Babel story and God's role in the creation of today's language families? BS! Rigorous standards are for sciency schmucks! If a remotest possibility makes it possible, a piece of god goes into the gap.

    It simply has to be so. If gods of the gaps were held to the same rigorous standards as scientific theories, then there would be NO theistic presence in scientific discourse. And that scares the sh-t out of me.

    If I stop for a second stuffing carved up corpses of gods into holes, if I accept the fact that theism simply is not a part of scientific discourse because there's not a single theistic theory that can stand up to rigorous testing (unsurprisingly - there's not a shred of evidence of any god or gods ever existing), I will understand the only distinction that's relevant to this debate: (a) theism is acceptance of current science plus having an imaginary friend, and (b) atheism is acceptance of current science.

    But that terrifies me. My God is more than an imaginary friend! Yes, if I turn my brain on I of course will realize that I have no more proof of my imaginary friend's existence than a 7-year old boy with an imaginary friend.

    But turning my brain on may cause me to lose my imaginary friend and damn it, I'm so scared, so scared, so scared.. So I will keep stuffing pieces of imaginary gods into walls, will ignore any scary counterarguments, will refuse to hold theistic arguments to the same standards as scientific ones, and will continue to obfuscate, manipulate, deceive, and keep... stuffing.. pieces.. of god.. into.. walls!

    Atheists may laugh at me or be irritated by my refusal to have a coherent argument. But it's because the idiots don't understand that the person I'm really trying to manipulate and deceive is me.


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