Can we choose what we believe?

Jan 24, 2013


Discussion by: M69att
To the moderators:  I have chosen the category ‘science’ because I believe it is a question which has been/will be answered by scientific inquiry but you might think it more appropriate to post as Atheism; assuming of course you feel it makes the grade.  I certainly think it is relevant and important as I have had several discussions about it on this and other forums and also with people face to  face (Sean Faircloth’s response to Sam Harris and Making Marriage Work When Only One Spouse Believe In God, are the two most recent on here) .  I am concerned that my question might be rejected on these grounds, “Don’t post questions that you could find answers to yourself by doing a
simple Google search or by doing some elementary reading”, because I believe the answers can be found in that way.  Despite this, I think it remains relevant and my aim is in part, to raise consciousness about our choice of terminology and in part, to establish a thread on this forum that clearly deals with this issue.  Thanks for considering my topic.

I often hear it said that, ‘people can
believe whatever they like’ or ‘you may choose to believe…’

I have heard this from the most unlikely
sources; renowned critical thinkers and scientists.  Whenever I hear it I feel an immediate sense
of indignation.  It just seems so far
from the truth to me.

To be fair, there is a distinction to be
made.  The phrase, ‘People can believe
whatever they like’ can be used in a political context to mean that people have
a right to believe whatever it is they believe and in this sense, at least, it
is coherent.  However, I would suggest
that even used thus, it is a poorly judged choice of expression as it seems to
imply a control over what we believe which it is far from clear that we
actually have.

I do not intend to make an argument
about free will here and, purely for the sake of this discussion, I shall
assume that we do have free will to make at least some choices.  Yet even if that is true, it seems very
improbable to me that we can simply decide to believe something that we didn’t
previously believe.  I offer the
following example.

You’re a young teenager. You have been brought up in an evangelical
Christian household. You have a really strong faith and you really believe all
that stuff. You decide to read the bible thoroughly and carefully with the
intention of strengthening your belief but, shock horror, instead of the
outcome you had expected you begin to have grave doubts. You desperately want
to keep your faith alive but the further you delve the worse those doubts
become. You then begin to investigate other points of view. After several more
years of experience, reading, considering, discussing and arguing you finally
realise that you have no faith left and you are, in fact, an Atheist.

Did you choose to become an Atheist or did it simply happen to you as a result
of the other choices you made?

So my three questions are…

Can we
choose what we believe?

It
strikes me that, when asked this question people often answer a substitute
question such as, “Can we make choices that will affect our beliefs” and I
think it entirely plausible that we can but I am hoping that in this discussion
people will try to answer my question as it is.If your answer to my first question is yes then can you explain the mechanism
by which we make that choice i.e. how do we decide to stop believing one thing
and start believing another?

If your
answer to my first question is no then, as people who believe in reason,
science and secular values should we be more careful about our choice of words
when what we are trying to say is that ‘people have a right to their beliefs’ and
not, in fact, that ‘people can choose what they actually believe’?

61 comments on “Can we choose what we believe?

  • 1
    crookedshoes says:

    I choose to believe certain things and I am absolutely compelled internally to believe others. This is a very broad question that probably has many answers even, multiple answers from one person (like me)

    I choose to believe that the scientists who research string theory are following the scientific method and their results are reliable.

    When I walk into a church I cannot believe anything I see and it comes from a deep spot inside me.

    I seem to choose to believe the one thing and have no choice in believing the other.

    I think that the bigger picture, here, is that people construct their own world view and then proceed through life with differing amounts of confirmation bias and potentially “blinders” on. Most of the skeptics have minimized our susceptibility as far as “belief” is concerned because we (I) tend to self evaluate and self examine.

    But, I have constructed my own world view, and the construction involves believing things by choice and also having little to no choice in other issues.



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  • 2
    tardisride says:

    I can only respond anecdotally by sharing my own experiences. I grew up much as your hypothetical example: I was raised by extremely religious Christians who believed the Bible was literal, historical fact, who waited eagerly for the End Days, convinced they would come in our lifetime. They fully expected to be prophets in those days, so I was raised that Jesus came before everything: education, recreation, even family. As an adult, even as a teenager, I had nagging doubts. My parents claimed these deep, personal relationships with god that I never felt, no matter how hard I prayed. Things they said would come to pass didn’t, and we never talked about it, we just moved on to the next prophetic message. But I chose to believe, at least on the surface, because I was taught that it would be very, very bad if I didn’t. Later in life I gave lip service to those convictions but stopped reading the Bible, stopped praying. Much later–I’m now 43–I made a decision to face facts. I chose to stop believing, because I opened myself up to other information that, when I compared the two, was so obviously true it would be absurd to think otherwise. I could, like many people, have chosen to maintain my belief despite evidence to the contrary.



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  • 3
    secularjew says:

    No, we cannot choose what we believe. It’s simply not how the brain works. And I’ll prove it. Go ahead, choose to believe that you are a dog or Queen Elizabeth or that you are on Mars right now. It’s impossible. Sure, you can pretend, but that’s not the same thing.
    Similarly, one can choose to attend church or whatever, but if you don’t actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or can become a cracker at Mass, no choosing to believe it will make it so. Of course, people can experience different degrees of belief or assume that their beliefs are strong, when in fact they simply never bothered to think about them with any seriousness. And people may delude themselves, but one can’t force oneself to believe something he does not believe to be true.

    It works the other way too, of course. For example, you may believe that your spouse is faithful. You may believe this with great certainty. However, you’re not likely to remain certain no matter how much you wish to be if you were to walk in on your spouse doing the mailman. The point is that beliefs are simply not a matter of choosing and that is also why debating things is not a totally useless exercise. Of course, you can’t really choose what you choose in the deepest sense because your choices are determined by things you do not control, but that debate can be found on the “Free Will” discussion thread.

    As for “people being entitled to their beliefs”, it’s just an empty phrase. Like the saying, “everyone has a right to their opinion”, it basically serves the same purpose as putting fingers in one’s ears and going, “La, la, la. I can’t hear you. You won’t change my mind.”
    A good way to think of rights is to think of them as duties. If you have a right to life, I have a duty not to kill you. But what does it mean to have a right to a belief or an opinion? Does that mean one can’t try to change your mind or influence it by disagreeing or introducing new information? OK, we obviously shouldn’t harass or abuse somebody for their beliefs, but that’s about it. So until we can physically go in and mess with your brain against your will, these phrases are basically empty rhetoric meant to shut people up.



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  • 4
    steve@royaltreatment.com says:

    I think perhaps that when we are believing something, we are in a way choosing to do so, but we do not know we are choosing at the time. It is only later when we become open to another perspective that we can see we were making those choices. Or put another way, we were not choosing between alternatives but rather simply accepting one way of looking at things. So in that sense a more appropriately worded phrase, with a meaning closer to what we intend when we say people are free to choose what they want to believe, might be, “Everyone can accept as true at this time whatever they like.” When we are in a state of believing, it seems to us that there is no choice, only “truth.” Choice comes when an alternative enters the picture and becomes viable. If we make another choice, then, to believe something else is true, then we stop the choosing process and are now accepting. As part of the experience of becoming a skeptic, I have found it gratifying to ferret out those unexamined acceptances I still hold, then open myself to choosing otherwise. So I guess I’m saying that choosing is for skeptics, not for believers.



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  • 5
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    We can choose to have integrity. After that, we discover what is true. We can choose to look, but we can’t choose what we find.

    I want to believe in trandimensional soul travel after death. I want to believe the Earth can sustain our pollution without ending civilization. I want to believe 2+2=5, because that would make business very profitable. I want to believe US elections are not rigged and that my vote is counted. I want to believe all the ladies take note when I walk in the room. I want to believe AIDS and cancer can be cured with positive thinking and chicken feathers. I want to believe the Holocaust never happened, Israel is noble and just, the suicide bombers get their 72 virgins, dogs go to Heaven, 9/11 was an inside job, and the revolution is at hand. However, I am humbled before evidence to the contrary.



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  • 6
    CdnMacAtheist says:

    From OP: “I often hear it said that, ‘people can believe whatever they like’ or ‘you may choose to believe.’ “

    Ones ability to make choices is affected by your brain’s departmental connections, which are partly dictated by genetics and much influenced by early childhood exposure to learning experiences – including indoctrination of many kinds.

    Some people are more sheep-like and some are more questioning, which affects how they perceive their sensory inputs from surroundings, families, peers, societies. This clearly affects how much they can learn and to influence their own mental landscapes.

    Once our subconscious networks and departmental processes are strongly constructed and buttressed against different ideas, the ability to see, listen to or understand other concepts is restricted, so one cannot make unlimited choices.

    So, even if we think we can believe whatever we like, those options are heavily influenced and constrained by our unique genetic endowment, personal history, education, rationality, opportunities, and worldviews.

    Of course, you can believe this personal opinion if you like …. 😎



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  • 7
    papa lazaru says:

    Aside from pathological cases, yeah, you have the right to believe what you want. However, it doesn’t mean beliefs or their consequences are all as valid as the next one.

    To choose to believe in something means that there is a qualitative process at work behind the scene, where you have weighted the positives and negatives of several propositions. And these can be anything. For ‘us’ it’s easy, since it’s just generally a rational evaluation. Sometimes however, it can be anything, emotional, moral (an alignment or divergence of a set of values), cultural…

    As for me, it happened very fast, very early. It just didn’t make any sense. So many contradictions, it felt like Santa Claus all over again, to put it simply. Then the rest kicked in much later, and if anything reinforced my convictions.



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  • I think people can decide they want to believe something and then look for a lot of evidence to support it. Whether or not it translates into true belief is hard to say from an outsiders perspective.

    I was acquainted with a guy who genuinely believed he was a dragon in a past life and believed he had phantom feelings of a tail and wings and stuff like that, and attributed some of his personality and behavior to his dragon soul. Years later he wrote about how he didn’t buy into that anymore, but at the time he just really wanted it to be true and convinced himself of those feelings. I’ve seen other people online (the internet is a strange place) who feel like they need to alter something about who they are in order to accommodate this “other” self trapped in their body, too. I think a lot of it arises in an attempt to create a world they feel they belong in, or explain why they feel so out of place.

    I went to a presentation from some ghost hunters recently, and you could tell that the mom of two kids was working really hard to prove that her kids had special psychic powers and would find her proof in just about anything. She really really wanted it to be true. (I talked to the son for a bit after the talk and saw his mindset on something change – I think he can find his way out of that crap.)

    The same thing happened with people in my parents’ church after my mom died. She was a strong picture of an ideal Christian person and died a pretty crummy death. My dad spent a lot of time going on and on about how her suffering was a sign that she was a true Christian or something, and dragged out examples of other people who died long, painful deaths as proof. I think he wanted to believe it and was trying to conjure evidence in order to make himself believe it simply because the alternative, that your God doesn’t care if you’re suffering terribly, is too much to deal with. Other people tried to convince themselves that her death was the fulfillment of a prophecy that she would be healed.

    We all probably fool ourselves somehow, but don’t think about it. Just think back to when you were a teenager and tried to find significance in everything your crush did. 😉



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  • 10
    Peter Grant says:

    I also notice you brought up the “right to believe”. It is important here that we understand the difference between epistemic liberties and rights to act. It is precisely because they acknowledge we lack contra-causal “free will” that we enjoy epistemic liberty, otherwise legal bodies would almost certainly try to enact some sort of “thought-crime”.



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  • 11
    CatDogBark says:

    I don’t really understand your use of choice in regards to believing and why it matters. Some people, when provided with facts believe them. Some people, when provided with fiction believe that and it may be because they are perceiving falsities as truths. I am sure there are other scenarios as well. Is it possible to knowingly disregard facts and believe something that has no place in reality? Is choosing to believe something and believing something different? Still I do not understand how this relates to choice. If you become an atheist based on a series of choices doesn’t that mean you chose to become an atheist? Maybe you did not understand the direction your choices would lead, but you still chose that path. Also why did you attribute answering no to your question to people that follow reason, science and secular views? What do you mean when you say people have a right to their beliefs. People can have beliefs, but as for any right to those beliefs I am suspicious. Maybe I’m missing something and I am confused and should not have even wrote this. Yet now I am pot committed.

    Directed at crookedshoes: I don’t understand the idea of being internally compelled to believe things. Does that mean you disregard everything you perceive in reality and just believe something because its inside you? Does that mean you were born with it and were not able to fully realize it until you matured?

    Directed at steve@royaltreatment.com: I think I agree with the whole of what you said it is just a couple things I can’t make sense of. If someone has no previous knowledge of a topic and there are choices such as fact, skepticism, disregard, etc, how does that play into “when we are believing something, we are in a way choosing to do so, but we do not know we are choosing at the time.” Is there no room for not believing in things and than choosing facts as your beliefs when they come? I think you would say of course there is and that you were just trying to make a point about belief. Also when you said “Everyone can accept as true at this time whatever they like.” I understand you were relating it to the word usage in regards to acceptance of allowing people to choose what they believe in, but I can just as easily say “Everyone can only accept as true, facts that are proven.” It doesn’t mean anything.

    This topic is altogether confusing, which means good question M69att and I am sure all my questions are annoying. One final question if you’ve decided to put up with it this long “Why do people believe in things without proof?”



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  • 12
    Robert Kubik says:

    When you are child you can not choose. Children just believe what they are told, they do not have critical thinking. But adults do make a choice. Generally most people believe what they want to believe, read books and articles that assures them in what they want to believe. Christians read only Biblie, atheist only Dawkins and not many people question their worldview.



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  • 13
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #12 by Robert Kubik:

    I suppose it depends on the child, but I wouldn’t call critical thinking a choice. If one has not been taught to think critically it is very difficult to do so, but once one has it is nearly impossible to stop. Believing whatever one wants to I would call a choice, just not a very good one.



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  • 14
    Alan4discussion says:

    This “right to believe what you like”, only applies to bandying words in discussions of no consequence.

    The material world does not care what you believe, but if you believe rubbish such as – you are fire-proof and can ignore fire-alarms, waterproof enough to ignore tsunami warnings, can wander at will on tidal mud flats without checking tide tables, walk on thin ice, venture onto mountains in a blizzard with preparation, or can cross a motorway at rush-hour without waiting for a gap in the traffic, – reality is likely to forcibly remind you of your errors , or eliminate you and your mistaken beliefs altogether.
    This could be considered “Natural Selection”!



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  • 15
    Alan4discussion says:

    In reply to #12 by Robert Kubik:

    When you are child you can not choose. Children just believe what they are told, they do not have critical thinking. But adults do make a choice.

    It is unfortunate for some children that they are not taught how to distinguish well-tested expert opinion, from nonsensical opinions of the assertive ignorant or misleading opinions from con-artists.

    Generally most people believe what they want to believe, read books and articles that assures them in what they want to believe. Christians read only Biblie, atheist only Dawkins and not many people question their worldview.

    I think you are making the mistake of thinking all people are fundamentalists. Many Xtians do not take the Bible literally, but do study science and history.

    Christians read only Bible, atheist only Dawkins and not many people question their worldview.

    There are certainly SOME Biblical literalists who read ONLY their bibles, but most atheists are not a reversed image of these.

    This is merely a fundamentalist projection of their own very limited thinking.

    When considering the publications of Richard Dawkins, you should remember that he wrote about evolution, as a professor of biology at a top UK University.

    This made him a target for anti-science fundamentalists.

    This site promotes science and education, with many here having a world (or a universal) view, based on being expert in those subjects and the scientific methods of acquiring accurate information.

    For a very good simple explanation of how to find out what is true, I suggest you read the hard-back or E-book edition of Richard Dawkins’ book, “The Magic of Reality”. http://old.www.richarddawkins.net/pages/books



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  • 16
    Reckless Monkey says:

    I think you’re onto something. Look at the behaviours that are expected of the religious.

    Why all the sitting and standing in churches, the silly rituals, cutting bits of your children’s genitals? I believe the more ridiculous the stuff they make you do the more likely you are to believe. Churches wouldn’t last 5 minutes if they didn’t emotionally invest people in all sorts of silly stuff. How keen are you going to be to question your faith when every Sunday you spent hours pointlessly kneeling and standing and saying silly things. How often did you miss opportunities to have sex, have a drink etc.

    Any religion that allows you to do what you want is doomed. This is because frankly it’s hard to believe.



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  • 17
    Robert Kubik says:

    Alan, I am writting what I have experienced. Neither christians nor atheists like me for asking them questions that they do not want to hear. So it will not be surprising if I am fired from this discussion forum.
    There are hardly any people who start reading something that refutes their faith.
    Just to give an example. Did science prove how life started to exist? Not. Why do not atheist admit that they believe it was just a blind chance. The emphasis is on word believe, because they have no evidence that a living cell started to exist from non-living material. In addition Pasteur proved that only life could create life.
    I asked you some questions in previous discussion and I am looking forward to your answers. It was not personal, I am not nicer to christians either. 🙂



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  • 18
    crookedshoes says:

    CatDogBark,
    I think I am suffering here from words not sufficiently conveying thoughts.

    My “bullshit meter” goes haywire when I try to sit through a RCC mass. When the priest is reciting the Nicene Creed and the faithful are eating it without thought…. I am sitting there doubting every single word of the prayer. It is as if I am internally compelled (poor word choice) to my disbelief. There is no possible way that I’d go along with the tenets that these people accept as dogma.

    When I read a journal article concerning a topic that is some deep science (things that are “over my head”), I accept (or believe) that protocol has been followed and that the researchers are honest and have integrity. I marvel at the discovery, sometimes finding out later that the research was flawed or even worse, falsified. But, initially, I “believed” it.

    I literally have a physical reaction to the fraud I sense in a church. I simultaneously accept a controversial science discovery because I assume that “if it is in Nature, it is peer reviewed”….

    I was attempting to verbalize this dichotomy (and perhaps did a bad job).

    In reply to #11 by CatDogBark:

    I don’t really understand your use of choice in regards to believing and why it matters. Some people, when provided with facts believe them. Some people, when provided with fiction believe that and it may be because they are perceiving falsities as truths. I am sure there are other scenarios as well. Is it possible to knowingly disregard facts and believe something that has no place in reality? Is choosing to believe something and believing something different? Still I do not understand how this relates to choice. If you become an atheist based on a series of choices doesn’t that mean you chose to become an atheist? Maybe you did not understand the direction your choices would lead, but you still chose that path. Also why did you attribute answering no to your question to people that follow reason, science and secular views? What do you mean when you say people have a right to their beliefs. People can have beliefs, but as for any right to those beliefs I am suspicious. Maybe I’m missing something and I am confused and should not have even wrote this. Yet now I am pot committed.

    Directed at crookedshoes: I don’t understand the idea of being internally compelled to believe things. Does that mean you disregard everything you perceive in reality and just believe something because its inside you? Does that mean you were born with it and were not able to fully realize it until you matured?

    Directed at steve@royaltreatment.com: I think I agree with the whole of what you said it is just a couple things I can’t make sense of. If someone has no previous knowledge of a topic and there are choices such as fact, skepticism, disregard, etc, how does that play into “when we are believing something, we are in a way choosing to do so, but we do not know we are choosing at the time.” Is there no room for not believing in things and than choosing facts as your beliefs when they come? I think you would say of course there is and that you were just trying to make a point about belief. Also when you said “Everyone can accept as true at this time whatever they like.” I understand you were relating it to the word usage in regards to acceptance of allowing people to choose what they believe in, but I can just as easily say “Everyone can only accept as true, facts that are proven.” It doesn’t mean anything.

    This topic is altogether confusing, which means good question M69att and I am sure all my questions are annoying. One final question if you’ve decided to put up with it this long “Why do people believe in things without proof?”



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  • 19
    crookedshoes says:

    Robert Kubik,

    First and foremost, you could not ask a sincere question that would make me dislike you. I like you just fine. This is a place where honest discourse occurs. So be heard and make sure to voice your opinions; they are welcome.

    In my opinion, science has put forth plausible hypotheses that adequately explain the process of Abiogenesis through many steps, including the RNA world, organic chemical evolution, hot clay polymerization….etc…..

    Other research is aimed at “pairing down” living things until the researcher is left with “the barest essentials” of what can be considered alive. Some awesome research has been done by Spiegleman involving viruses that have a genome of just 218 nucleotides, yet they reproduce and evolve in test tubes!!!! (read up on Spiegleman’s monster — it is overwhelmingly cool stuff)

    Anyway, as more work is done, a clearer picture emerges. The level of proof that you may seek on this topic may never be reached, however, science marches forward.

    As far as “admitting it was blind chance”… Those words make an evolutionist (not necessarily an atheist) uncomfortable because of the tendency of creationists to jump on the “idea of randomness” and then claim that evolution is random (which it isn’t).

    Also be sure to notice that WORK IS BEING DONE. Hypotheses being forwarded and tested, experiments being run, data compiled and conclusions being reached.

    What we all here will rush to defend is the scientific method and it’s implementation.

    In reply to #17 by Robert Kubik:

    Alan, I am writting what I have experienced. Neither christians nor atheists like me for asking them questions that they do not want to hear. So it will not be surprising if I am fired from this discussion forum.
    There are hardly any people who start reading something that refutes their faith.

    Just to give an example. Did science prove how life started to exist? Not. Why do not atheist admit that they believe it was just a blind chance. The emphasis is on word believe, because they have no evidence that a living cell started to exist from non-living material. In addition Pasteur proved that only life could create life.
    I asked you some questions in previous discussion and I am looking forward to your answers. It was not personal, I am not nicer to christians either. 🙂



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  • 20
    Robert Kubik says:

    Crookedshoes,
    Can I really voice my opinion? I understand this is an atheistic website so I do not think all the opinions are welcomed. I do not criticise it. I understand that christians do not want atheists on their websites as well as Richard Dawkins foundations do not want comments by christians either.
    So I try to risk it. I find it really difficult to believe that life was not created by somenone intelligent. My favourite subject is biology and the cell and the proces of proteosynthesis is so complicated that I can see a design in it. My cousin is a biochemist. We discussed different hypothesis of abiogenesis a lot. I find it quite difficult to write it here in English, English is not my first language but I will try.
    One problem is that nucleic acids consist of different molecules. Each molecule need totaly different chemical environment to come into existence. So all that different molecules could not come into existence in one place in one time.
    And there are much more problems. He told me that the more we know about cell the more questions that science can not answer we have. All the hypothesis about abiogenesis have unsolved problems.



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  • 21
    crookedshoes says:

    RobertKubik,
    I love having a christian here at Dawkins! I cannot speak for everyone, but, it is fun to talk about the discrepancies and even more fun to use logic and reason to combat their claims. They tend not to stick around for a long time, but that does not mean I (we) don’t enjoy when they stop by! So, yes, your opinions are welcome.

    You have a couple fundamental misconceptions about the nature of chemical evolution (and so does your biochemist cousin). At no point is it forwarded that DNA would spring into existence in one step. This is a common error made by IDers and creationists. It has been said ad nauseum by myself and others on this site and by Richard in spots around the world: Evolution does not claim that things “poof” into existence. Your beliefs are the ones that make those claims.

    The steps necessary for DNA to EVOLVE have been and are being researched. It is important to remember that these events occurred in an ocean of chemicals over the course of a billion years. Your proposal that they needed to spring into existence in one moment is absurd.

    It is these really juvenile and quite frankly dumb ideas that IDers cling to that really perplex me. I am telling you that evolution does NOT claim that DNA sprang into existence in one step. Yet, you offer it as your proof against evolution. How can you reconcile this??? Your argument is with yourself, not with evolution.

    In reply to #20 by Robert Kubik:

    Crookedshoes,
    Can I really voice my opinion? I understand this is an atheistic website so I do not think all the opinions are welcomed. I do not criticise it. I understand that christians do not want atheists on their websites as well as Richard Dawkins foundations do not want comments by christians either.
    So I try to risk it. I find it really difficult to believe that life was not created by somenone intelligent. My favourite subject is biology and the cell and the proces of proteosynthesis is so complicated that I can see a design in it. My cousin is a biochemist. We discussed different hypothesis of abiogenesis a lot. I find it quite difficult to write it here in English, English is not my first language but I will try.
    One problem is that nucleic acids consist of different molecules. Each molecule need totaly different chemical environment to come into existence. So all that different molecules could not come into existence in one place in one time.
    And there are much more problems. He told me that the more we know about cell the more questions that science can not answer we have. All the hypothesis about abiogenesis have unsolved problems.



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  • 22
    Alan4discussion says:

    In reply to #17 by Robert Kubik:

    Alan, I am writting what I have experienced. Neither christians nor atheists like me for asking them questions that they do not want to hear. So it will not be surprising if I am fired from this discussion forum.

    That is unlikely providing you present a polite reasoned discussion and provide evidence (such as links to university studies or scientific articles) to support any claims you make. Unlike many Xtian sites the moderators do not censor views here , providing the site rules (terms of use) are followed.

    There are hardly any people who start reading something that refutes their faith.

    Most of us are into reasoning and evidence and avoid claiming what we don’t know as “faith”.

    Just to give an example. Did science prove how life started to exist? Not.

    We do not know for certain how life began on Earth, but we do know approximately, WHEN it started on Earth, and there are various experiments which go part of the way to demonstrating how it COULD have started on Earth.

    There are details of abiogenesis here: – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1XWtezOTvY

    It’s been 55 years since the Miller-Urey Experiment, and science has made enormous progress on solving the origin of life. This video summarizes one of the best leading models. Yes there are others. Science may never know exactly how life DID start, but we will know many ways how life COULD start. Don’t be fooled by creationist arguments as even a minimal understanding of biology and chemistry is enough to realize they have no clue what they are talking about.

    Note on how competition works. Water will flow across a membrane to try to equalize the ion concentration. If there is a lot of polymer in a vesicle it will be surrounded by many ions, thus causing water to flow into the vesicle, increasing the internal pressure and stretching the membrane. Fatty acids are in equilibrium between the vesicle and solution. If 2 vesicles are near one another they will gradually swap fatty acids. If one membrane is under tension, the fatty acid “on rate” will be greater than the “off rate” (move to a lower energy state by relaxing the pressure). It will suck up fatty acids from solution. The other vesicle will still give them off, but they will disappear (sucked up by neighbor) and not return. Therefore, the vesicle with high internal pressure will grow and the neighbor will shrink.

    Why do not atheist admit that they believe it was just a blind chance.

    This is really about science rather than about atheism – unless you belong to the – god-did-it-by-magic school of thought. Many religious people accept science and evidence for what it is – the best way we have of working out correct answers which will be confirmed by repeat independent testing.

    The emphasis is on word believe, because they have no evidence that a living cell started to exist from non-living material.

    Watch the video – the author got a Nobel Prize for his work on genetics. This is organic chemistry. Scientists try to avoid “believing” without evidence, and up-date their views when new evidence is confirmed.

    In addition Pasteur proved that only life could create life.

    Actually he proved that bacteria decompose dead organic material – but only if they gained access to it.
    That is why heat-sterilised sealed in canned food does not rot.
    He did not create any new species or “new life”..
    Quoting Pasteur is a favourite way Young Earth Creationists have of demonstrating their ignorance of absolutely basic biology.
    Pasteur’s work was on the decomposition of dead organic matter (broth) by known bacteria, and had nothing to do with the genetics or abiogenesis of life arising from basic organic molecules.

    I asked you some questions in previous discussion and I am looking forward to your answers. It was not personal, I am not nicer to christians either. 🙂

    We try to give clear answers here but the rules are that they should be discussed on the appropriate topic of the thread. I will not be offended by honest questions. On a science site you must expect questions leading to scientifically correct answers – even if the answer is “We/I don’t know”!

    Choosing to “believe” without testable evidence, is not a scientific procedure.

    Those who use such “faith” methods of thinking in science or engineering, get into all sorts of trouble, when their bridges/buildings fall down, or their rockets /chemical-plants blow up!



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  • 23
    Alan4discussion says:

    In reply to #20 by Robert Kubik:

    Crookedshoes, is the right person to talk to on this topic for expert advice, so I will just chip in with a few items.

    English is not my first language but I will try.
    One problem is that nucleic acids consist of different molecules. Each molecule need totaly different chemical environment to come into existence. So all that different molecules could not come into existence in one place in one time.

    That is very likely the case. What you need to remember, is that all the heavier molecules we are made of , originated in exploding stars.
    There are organic molecules in giant gas nebulas where stars and planets like our Sun and Solar System are forming right now. The radiation in space modifies these molecules with temperatures ranging absolute zero (0 Kelvin) in space , to many thousands of degrees in stars.

    Back on Earth we have had a huge range of temperatures (and still have liquid water at over +300°c at deep ocean hydrothermal vents.) The Earth has had a range of chemistry in its atmosphere for billions of years, with thousands of tons of dust and gas from space falling into our atmosphere all the time.

    And there are much more problems. He told me that the more we know about cell the more questions that science can not answer we have.

    Science has never claimed to have all the answers – or all the answers at present, but it has many more answers than those who can only say it happened by magic or that some hugely powerful creator invented the universe because bronze-age tribes who knew nothing about the universe said so.
    The evidence is, that the universe runs just fine on the laws of science without any magical interventions.

    All the hypothesis about abiogenesis have unsolved problems.

    It is indeed unfinished business, but much progress has been made, with optimists thinking we will be able to generate living cells within the next few years.

    Science has most of the key questions, and is working on them.

    There are of course psychological and neurological explanations as to why people need to believe in the personified supernatural – but that is a separate issue.



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  • 24
    psgofro says:

    I may be straying a little off topic but it seems to me that this has to be approached in the proper order. If one chooses to believe something, then they are subverting the process of reason and straying into a form of faith, regardless of the ‘thing’ they are choosing to believe or not. I believe the correct approach is to choose to train yourself to think in terms of understanding what you believe at a given point and why. Then allow yourself (perhaps to train yourself) to apply reason and logic, to test those beliefs. If you do that (of course this is basically to apply the scientific method) then you will arrive at beliefs.

    So in short, it is not material if you can choose to believe in a specific thing. The real question is should you be choosing to believe at all. I believe the answer is no. You should choose to train your mind to analyze and determine.



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  • 25
    Pauly01 says:

    It depends on the person , I believe that some people are genetically disposed to certain character traits. We all attribute culture as defining our personal outlook and family upbringing is a large contributing factor to what we believe. Exposure to education is also an obvious driving force.

    Speaking personally people usually find their level depending on their psychological make up. If they don’t my opinion is that such people will function poorly in society.

    To surmise and to state the obvious, inherent and deep psychological make up is the deciding factor in most cases , it will throw out ‘beliefs’ that are inconsistent with its rules , it manages this through the expression of anxiety, maladjusted behaviour , social non acceptance, etc. A person will be left with the choice of change or be overrun. Given enough iterations of this process a person will arrive at values and beliefs most consistent with core character.



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  • 26
    Misfire says:

    Well damn, I was all prepared to offer my thoughts but you ended up stating them all: we can’t choose to believe; we can choose to put ourselves on a track that might affect our beliefs, and we should reflect that in our speech. I like the “right to believe” framing.

    For the heck of it I’d add that commenters here are probably all coming from a mindset where weighing ideas and changing beliefs is second nature; it’s possible that others can will themselves into a state of belief in a way that’s foreign to me.



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  • Great responses so far, really enjoying all your insights. Thanks all. I’m going to try and spend some time on this tomorrow evening, it’s late here now and I’ve had a long day.

    In reply to #11 by CatDogBark:
    I like your post and will try to answer your questions, which are not at all annoying. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions.



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  • 29
    GospelofJudas says:

    Hmm. A lot has been said of being able to interpret facts and believe or disbelieve, but denial of claims with solid evidence doesn’t seem healthy. You can’t simply choose to disbelieve in gravity and expect any good result. That being said, I am convinced that there is an arena in which you can choose to believe, and that is when it comes to value statements, and interpreting data.

    For instance, let’s take women in combat arms (a recent development here in the States). You can run test after test regarding women’s physiology, the rigors of infantry combat, the psychological implications of introducing women to a previously all male branch, etc. etc. However, at the end of all of this, you must still decide; is it ‘right’ for women to do this? How would we even come to an objective answer? Someone who values the rights and dignity of humans might say, if they meet the standards, yes. The military will just have to get over it; the fast track promotions and prestige should be available. Someone who wants what they believe will be the best qualified military for specific jobs may say no, stating that the flaws inherent in America’s fighting men today would make it disastrous and too costly. Who’s right? Depends on what you value.

    This same question occurs often in our lives. What makes you happy? What do you BELIEVE will make you happy? How should we treat one another? (and I don’t mean to question baseline secular ethics, but how much aid should we render another, and when?) How should we treat animals? What is the most productive use of your time? Do you want kids? Do you think that having kids is the purpose of you being here, or that your drives as a lifeform are worth listening to, or can we choose to override them because thanks to recursive thinking, we can take a long view?

    Value systems are complex and often subjective. Science can’t tell you what you think the best song is, or which piece of art in any given museum will move you the most. (forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m currently under the impression that psychology is still a ‘soft science’, and has some difficulty making predictive models). Certain attributes like empathy and awareness need to be cultivated, as well. I particularly enjoyed that Professor Dawkins referenced elevating our consciousnesses in ‘The God Delusion’. Becoming more aware of what’s around you will change how you interact with it. If I had a nickel for every atheist who waxed profound about property rights and how animals are only property and blah blah blah, stealing an incredibly humano-centric viewpoint from monotheistic religions and not even realizing it, I would by typing this from a tropical resort instead.

    Short answer, yes, when it comes to interpretation of facts that don’t inform you of value judgments, absolutely.



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  • 30
    Ignorant Amos says:

    In reply to #30 by GospelofJudas:

    For instance, let’s take women in combat arms (a recent development here in the States). You can run test after test regarding women’s physiology, the rigors of infantry combat, the psychological implications of introducing women to a previously all male branch, etc. etc. However, at the end of all of this, you must still decide; is it ‘right’ for women to do this? How would we even come to an objective answer? Someone who values the rights and dignity of humans might say, if they meet the standards, yes. The military will just have to get over it; the fast track promotions and prestige should be available. Someone who wants what they believe will be the best qualified military for specific jobs may say no, stating that the flaws inherent in America’s fighting men today would make it disastrous and too costly. Who’s right? Depends on what you value.

    Nope, I don’t see it that way…that is why there are selection processes for the military. Nothing to do with “belief”. Whether it is intellect or brawn, male and female must pass certain criteria before being accepted for certain disciplines.

    From my own area of expertise as an ex-Royal Engineer, a 6 stone light made up young women would be next to useless in the construction of a Medium Girder Bridge…a whole troop would never get the bridge built. Now there are women in the R.E.’s, but they had to achieve a certain level of capability. That goes for all disciplines in the service.



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  • 31
    Ignorant Amos says:

    Of course there are a number of definitions of the word ‘believe’ and I see a bit of confusion in certain responses as to which one is at the heart of the subject in the OP.

    We believe in stuff based on what probability that they are true. This probability is deduced using Bayes’ Theorem. We all do this intuitively numerous times daily.

    ” In the Bayesian interpretation, it expresses how a subjective degree of belief should rationally change to account for evidence.”



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  • 32
    Robert Kubik says:

    Crookedshoes,
    You wrote: “It is important to remember that these events occurred in an ocean of chemicals over the course of a billion years. Your proposal that they needed to spring into existence in one moment is absurd.”
    I agree that the time is an advantage for biological evolution. But we are talking about abiogenesis. And before you have a first replicant, the long time is an enemy.
    To give an example. If you build your house for two thousand years it is destroyed before you finish building it. Lets talk about RNA hypothesis. How stable are molecules needed for RNA? How long can they exist? How long can ribose exist before it falls apart? How long can thymin exist? How long can enzymes exist until they fall apart? etc.
    So if the organism is not able to replicate itself, time is not helpfull. Creation of life requires all the molecules comming into existence in one place in a very short time. And all the molecules need different chemical environment so it is impossible.



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  • 33
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #30 by GospelofJudas:

    That being said, I am convinced that there is an arena in which you can choose to believe, and that is when it comes to value statements, and interpreting data.

    This is controversial at best. Value statements are always with reference to a non-arbitrary set of properties a thing has, and the evolutionary logic behind them limits the set. Far more people value courage and honesty than cowardice and deception, and this is because of real-world facts about those virtues and the people who express them, not because people played the belief lottery. Also, people value things for reasons, even if only subconsciously and even if they can’t articulate those reasons.

    As for the second one, interpretation is an attempt to get the most accurate view or set of views from a limited supply of information, a bit like trying to figure out whether you’re looking at a flat circle or a sphere. While there may well be easily-interchangeable or equivalent interpretations, choosing to believe in any particular framework still has to be justified by the circumstances. For instance, if I want to interpret Shakespeare as a misogynist, I would have to point to evidence from his writings which make the most sense if he was a misogynist. But I also submit there was a real sense in which Shakespeare really was or was not a misogynist, and only the fact that he’s long dead and we don’t have a time machine or mind-reading technology prevents us from getting anything conclusive.

    This same question occurs often in our lives. What makes you happy? What do you BELIEVE will make you happy?

    Both of these are potentially answerable by science, though the lack of mind-reading technology does hamper it a bit. For instance, I’m pretty certain that eating broken glass with oil and live electric eels most certainly won’t make me happy, and I believe it because I have some idea of how my brains, and therefore my sentience and happiness, work.

    How should we treat one another? (and I don’t mean to question baseline secular ethics, but how much aid should we render another, and when?)

    >

    How should we treat animals? What is the most productive use of your time? Do you want kids? Do you think that having kids is the purpose of you being here, or that your drives as a lifeform are worth listening to, or can we choose to override them because thanks to recursive thinking, we can take a long view?

    The trouble is that one could easily argue all of these are decisions we have to make in ignorance, not because we’re free to choose. It’s true that decision-making brains evolved to deal with cases like this – if we knew what to do from the bat, we wouldn’t need decision-making in the first place – but this is because we have only one future and need to narrow it down to one option. If all options were equally valid, there’d be no umming and ahhing in the first place. We’d just pick at random.

    Value systems are complex and often subjective.

    Firstly, complexity is irrelevant. A lot of science is complex, but that doesn’t turn those portions of it into a value system. Secondly, “subjective” is a polysemic word. If by subjective, you mean “having or based on having an experience of the world”, then yes, you’re right. If, however, you mean “untouchable by objective rational inquiry like science”, then I raise doubts about this conclusion. Consciousness is a real-world thing that obeys laws of its own (some might say neurological laws), even though we can’t always fathom those laws at present. Invoking personal experience doesn’t mean talking about something beyond science, or at least beyond reason and logic. Even if science merely found that consciousness exists independently of brain matter, this doesn’t prove that we can choose our values or our beliefs differently from how we choose “facts”.

    >

    Science can’t tell you what you think the best song is, or which piece of art in any given museum will move you the most.

    Actually, in theory it could. An extremely good neuroscientist could, in principle, take a thorough scan of my mind down to the last neuron, analyse the result, and find out what music would satisfy me when my brain was in certain configurations. The fact that, in real life, he’d have to be preposterously hypercompetent to pull this off doesn’t prove that it’s impossible in principle. Again, it’s more that we’re doomed to ignorance than that these issues are “subjective”.

    (forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m currently under the impression that psychology is still a ‘soft science’, and has some difficulty making predictive models).

    I forgive you in part, because you are partially wrong. Psychology is improving from its abysmal roots in intuitionism, Freudian psychology, and extreme behaviourism, and some of the better branches are cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology (save for the few crackpots), and neuropsychology. They do have predictive value, but their methodologies aren’t always as rigorous as those in the “hard” sciences by necessity of their subject, which is biological.

    Certain attributes like empathy and awareness need to be cultivated, as well. I particularly enjoyed that Professor Dawkins referenced elevating our consciousnesses in ‘The God Delusion’. Becoming more aware of what’s around you will change how you interact with it. If I had a nickel for every atheist who waxed profound about property rights and how animals are only property and blah blah blah, stealing an incredibly humano-centric viewpoint from monotheistic religions and not even realizing it, I would by typing this from a tropical resort instead.

    I admire the sentiment expressed here about raising awareness. Getting more information and facts and making sure the body of knowledge is consistent is the best way of getting at the truths behind such issues.

    The trouble with this conclusion in light of our context – of deciding whether one can choose what to believe – is that it again falls into the trap of mistaking ignorance of real world facts with proof that we can subvert them with our decision-making. Human-centric views are, by definition, ignorant beliefs because they distort facts about real-world phenomena concerning animals. But the people who hold them don’t choose them, nor do those who hold opposing views. They come to their conclusions based on the information they gleaned from their own experiences and from how their brain’s thinking works.

    Short answer, yes, when it comes to interpretation of facts that don’t inform you of value judgments, absolutely.

    My short answer is no, not even here. We’re saddled with value judgements by a combination of our evolutionary history and our subsequent modification by the environment. We make choices within those frameworks, but both the “we” and our “choices” were determined already, and we don’t get to choose the frameworks because the very act occurs in a framework that was already set up.



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  • 34
    Alan4discussion says:

    In reply to #33 by Robert Kubik:

    While I will leave the details of genetic developments to Crookedshoes, I will again draw your attention to the fact that this is a scientific matter, and is accepted as a scientific matter by mainstream Xtian denominations, even though they still insist “God-did-it” somehow!

    Here is the present Roman Catholic version:

    (Although some of their followers are ignorant of their own church’s current thinking, and are still stuck in choosing to believe the earlier {Pope Pius IX – Vatican I } denials of science)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic-Church-and-evolution
    The Church has deferred to scientists on matters such as the age of the earth and the authenticity of the fossil record. Papal pronouncements, along with commentaries by cardinals, have accepted the findings of scientists on the gradual appearance of life.

    In fact, the International Theological Commission in a July 2004 statement endorsed by Cardinal Ratzinger, then president of the Commission and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI, includes this paragraph:

    According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5–4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

    In addition, while he was the Vatican’s chief astronomer, Fr. George Coyne, issued a statement on 18 November 2005 saying that “Intelligent design isn’t science even though it pretends to be.

    For details on the pre-DNA, pre RNA features of abiogenesis, I recommend you watch the video-link I posted at comment 22.



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  • 35
    GospelofJudas says:

    Zeuglodon:

    My short answer is no, not even here. We’re saddled with value judgements by a combination of our evolutionary history and our subsequent modification by the environment. We make choices within those frameworks, but both the “we” and our “choices” were determined already, and we don’t get to choose the frameworks because the very act occurs in a framework that was already set up.

    Thank you my friend, for your thorough and extensive response. I tried to avoid raising the Free Will question per the post’s request, but when it comes right down to it, I agree too that free will is illusory. I’m rather enamored of the Buddhist concept of the ‘soul’ (or lack), that we are essentially a combination of experiences and that who we are has been directly shaped by the interaction of our bodies with external stimuli. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I agree with the spirit of your rebuttal.

    I suppose we should define ‘choice’ and belief. Can someone decide that their current paradigm or belief system is flawed, and work to change it. whether because they noticed inconsistencies they couldn’t ignore or new information has become available? Yes, I believe they can.



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  • 36
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #36 by GospelofJudas:

    Zeuglodon:

    My short answer is no, not even here. We’re saddled with value judgements by a combination of our evolutionary history and our subsequent modification by the environment. We make choices within those frameworks, but both the “we” and our “choices” were determined already, and we don’t get to choose the frameworks because the very act occurs in a framework that was already set up.

    Thank you my friend, for your thorough and extensive response. I tried to avoid raising the Free Will question per the post’s request, but when it comes right down to it, I agree too that free will is illusory. I’m rather enamored of the Buddhist concept of the ‘soul’ (or lack), that we are essentially a combination of experiences and that who we are has been directly shaped by the interaction of our bodies with external stimuli. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I agree with the spirit of your rebuttal.

    I suppose we should define ‘choice’ and belief. Can someone decide that their current paradigm or belief system is flawed, and work to change it. whether because they noticed inconsistencies they couldn’t ignore or new information has become available? Yes, I believe they can.

    I apologize for going off on a tangent, despite the OP’s instructions. At the time, I felt it was necessary to bring it in to more extensively cover the base of my counterpoint, but in retrospect I think I went too far. If you mean simply that a human being is capable of standing back and taking a longer perspective, then naturally my answer would be yes. I’ve done it several times myself, so it would be absurd to contradict myself. And conversions and “deconversions” do occur, so naturally, I’d say yes to that too.

    As for the OP, I think it would be more accurate to say I revised my worldview multiple times rather than that I chose to do so. It just happened naturally in response to new ideas coming my way, and if it could be described as a decision-making process, then it was mostly a series of unconscious ones. I was technically an implicit atheist (an atheist but not aware of it) before I learned more about the issues through reading Dawkins and finding out about religious creeds, and finally classifying myself as an explicit agnostic atheist with secular personism shadings. However, I also learned that, but for want of a nail, I may well have been a devout Christian or Buddhist in another life, so my choice was real but limited. And obviously I may believe something simply because my in-built biases led me to believe it, but not because I consciously chose it despite the facts. I used to follow astrology, for instance, but more because I liked reading about the personalities of different star signs than because I had any coherent rationale for it.

    I think the notion of choice is intuitively fine, so long as it isn’t a stand-in for metaphysical free will.



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  • 37
    Ignorant Amos says:

    In reply to #33 by Robert Kubik:

    And all the molecules need different chemical environment so it is impossible.

    Soooooo!!!!!……fallacies notwithstanding, gods did it?…..FFS Wise up

    Here….you won’t be ridiculed for posting reasonable stuff

    …but for posting rubbish, ya best batten down the hatches or prepare to take the flak.

    Evidence please……put up or shut up.

    [Edited by moderator to bring within Terms of Use]



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  • My religious friends sometimes accuse me of having “beliefs” and I have to stop them and assert that instead I have “reasonable expectations based on prior evidence” (as others have written, see Bayes’ Theorem).

    In terms of how that relates to belief in abiogenesis, the more we learn about autocatalysis in the chemistry of complex molecules, and how that can combine with pattern copying at enough integrity to promote selected advantage, the more we see how there can be a kind of evolution in molecules long before we get anything we would call “life as we know it.” I often suggest this lovely video on the subject.



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  • First off, thanks again for all of your replies; I am finding this a fascinating discussion.
    One thing I notice that is striking is that where people have claimed that we do choose what we believe, it is apparently nothing more than assertion. No mechanism for how one chooses has been described. There has been a lot of talk about weighing evidence and updating beliefs with the implication that this implies a choice of what to believe but that fudges the distinction that I am really keen to make. In fact, it only answers the substitute question I mentioned to begin with. If you ask, “Can I make choices that will cause my beliefs to change?” The answer could then be, “Yes, I can weigh the evidence.” But when you choose to weigh the evidence, if you are truly weighing the evidence, you have not chosen what to believe but rather accepted that the evidence will be making that choice for you. Or, put another way, if you have chosen what to believe, you are not really weighing the evidence. This point was well made in comment #24 by psgofro:

    In reply to #9 by Kim Probable:

    I think people can decide they want to believe something and then look for a lot of evidence to support it. Whether or not it translates into true belief is hard to say from an outsiders perspective.

    I think this makes a great deal of sense and probably comes closest to suggesting a mechanism for choosing belief of all the posts on the thread. Thanks.

    In reply to #11 by CatDogBark:

    I don’t really understand your use of choice in regards to believing and why it matters. Some people, when provided with facts believe them. Some people, when provided with fiction believe that and it may be because they are perceiving falsities as truths. I am sure there are other scenarios as well. Is it possible to knowingly disregard facts and believe something that has no place in reality? Is choosing to believe something and believing something different? Still I do not understand how this relates to choice. If you become an atheist based on a series of choices doesn’t that mean you chose to become an atheist? Maybe you did not understand the direction your choices would lead, but you still chose that path. Also why did you attribute answering no to your question to people that follow reason, science and secular views? What do you mean when you say people have a right to their beliefs. People can have beliefs, but as for any right to those beliefs I am suspicious. Maybe I’m missing something and I am confused and should not have even wrote this. Yet now I am pot committed.
    This topic is altogether confusing, which means good question M69att and I am sure all my questions are annoying. One final question if you’ve decided to put up with it this long “Why do people believe in things without proof?”

    You ask some really good questions. I wish I had time to give a really thorough in depth response but I’m struggling for time and energy at the moment. I will get back to you as soon as I can and try to take it one point at a time. Of course my answers won’t be definitive but will only be my opinions, however answering your questions will prove a useful exercise for me I think.

    In reply to #32 by Ignorant Amos:

    We believe in stuff based on what probability that they are true. This probability is deduced using Bayes’ Theorem. We all do this intuitively numerous times daily.

    Are you really saying that we use Bayes’ Theorem intuitively Amos?

    As for all the other points I’d like to pick up from the discussion, I’ll just have to come back to them.



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  • 41
    Ignorant Amos says:

    In reply to #41 by M69att:

    Are you really saying that we use Bayes’ Theorem intuitively Amos?

    Yes I am…well, I’m repeating the point that Richard Carrier made in his latest book “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem”.

    “In simple terms, Bayes’s Theorem is a logical formula that deals with cases of empirical ambiguity, calculating how confident we can be in any particular conclusion, given what we know at the time.”

    It’s a good book, I recommend it.

    Bayes’ Theorem

    “Rational inference on the left end, physical causality on the right end; an equation with mind on one side and reality on the other. Remember how the scientific method turned out to be a special case of Bayes’ Theorem? If you wanted to put it poetically, you could say that Bayes’ Theorem binds reasoning into the physical universe.”

    http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes

    It’s a good webpage, I recommend it.



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  • In reply to #42 by Ignorant Amos:

    Yes Amos, I know what Bayes’ Theorum is. I’ve not read Carrier but I’m fairly confident that he doesn’t claim we use BT intuitively. I also read Less Wrong and have previously read Eliezer Yudkowsy’s ‘Intuitive Explanation of Bayes Theorum’ in which reference. In that article he clearly demonstrates that we do not use BT intuitively and actually says…

    Bayesian reasoning is very counterintuitive.

    The very reason why BT is so powerful is because it overcomes our poor ability to calculate complex probability intuitively. Indeed, the very need for a theorum suggests that we do not do this intuitively.
    For further references try Luke Meulhausers’ ‘Intuitive Explanation of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorum or read ‘ Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman it’s an excellent book and explains in detail, why we are not good at intuitively calculating probability.



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  • In reply to #42 by Ignorant Amos:

    Yes Amos, I know what Bayes’ Theorem is and I disagree with what you say about it. This is not a personal attack and I do not think you are stupid. I think you are quite correct that we intuitively calculate probabilities many times each day I just think that the evidence is pretty clear that we do so badly. When the probabilities are simple we usually get away with it and the heuristics we use serve us well but when it comes to even slightly more complex issues we do not do very well. It is precisely when our intuition fails us that Bayes’ Theorem is so valuable. The very power of Bayes’ Theorem is that it gets around out intuitive weaknesses when it comes to calculating probability. Indeed, if we were able to perform this kind of probability calculation intuitively we would not even need a theorem.

    I haven’t read Carrier but I have heard him talk about applying Bayes’ Theorem to historical research and, as he clearly understands what he is talking about, I am fairly confident that he would not have claimed that we have an ability to use BT intuitively.

    I do read Less Wrong and have read Eliezer Yudkowsky’s, ‘An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem’ which you reference. In that article what he actually says is…

    While there are a few existing online explanations of Bayes’ Theorem, my experience with trying to introduce people to Bayesian reasoning is that the existing online explanations are too abstract. Bayesian reasoning is very counterintuitive. People do not employ Bayesian reasoning intuitively, find it very difficult to learn Bayesian reasoning when tutored, and rapidly forget Bayesian methods once the tutoring is over. This holds equally true for novice students and highly trained professionals in a field. Bayesian reasoning is apparently one of those things which, like quantum mechanics or the Wason Selection Test, is inherently difficult for humans to grasp with our built-in mental faculties.

    For further reference try An Intuitive Explanation of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem or read, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s an excellent book and in it Kahneman explores in some depth, how our intuition fails to accurately calculate complex probabilities. In chapter 22 he discusses ‘expert intuition’. Or read this article by Kahneman and Tversky.



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  • Hey Matt! I had an epiphany a couple of years ago; beliefs suck! The stance I take might be called ‘model-dependent realism’ (Re:A Brief History of Time). Accept the fact that we will always be blind to most of the universe, and that selecting beliefs automatically means you’ve taken on biases. Instead, understand that you have a model of reality. This model is how you navigate the world and make your choices. It should be open to continual improvement. If your model doesn’t match observations, change the model. A belief would get in your way.

    Essentially I don’t believe anything, it seems almost synonymous with ‘faith’.



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  • 45
    GospelofJudas says:

    In reply to #45 by JayS91:

    Hey Matt! I had an epiphany a couple of years ago; beliefs suck! The stance I take might be called ‘model-dependent realism’ (Re:A Brief History of Time). Accept the fact that we will always be blind to most of the universe, and that selecting beliefs automatically means you’ve taken on biases. Instead, understand that you have a model of reality. This model is how you navigate the world and make your choices. It should be open to continual improvement. If your model doesn’t match observations, change the model. A belief would get in your way.

    Essentially I don’t believe anything, it seems almost synonymous with ‘faith’.

    I dig it Jay. Very Zen.



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  • In reply to #42 by Ignorant Amos:

    I know what Bayes’ Theorem is Amos and I must disagree, it is not the same as our intuitive reasoning about probability. Indeed, the very power of Bayesian reasoning is that it gets around our tendency to get probabilities wrong by making us take account of prior probabilities or base-rate, if you prefer, which we intuitively tend to ignore. You are quite correct that we make many intuitive probability calculations a day and the heuristics we use serve us well enough in simple everyday situations but that is absolutely not the same thing as using Bayesian reasoning. I really struggled with it for ages until I found Luke Meuhlhauser’s An Intuitive Explanation of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’Theorem, which is the best and gentlest introduction I have found anywhere.

    I have also read the Eliezer Yudkowsky article you link to on the Less Wrong community blog and what he actually says in his article, An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem is…

    Bayesian reasoning is very counterintuitive. People do not employ Bayesian reasoning intuitively, find it very difficult to learn Bayesian reasoning when tutored, and rapidly forget Bayesian methods once the tutoring is over. This holds equally true for novice students and highly trained professionals in a field. Bayesian reasoning is apparently one of those things which, like quantum mechanics or the Wason Selection Test, is inherently difficult for humans to grasp with our built-in mental faculties.

    Neither does Richard Carrier claim otherwise. If you believe he does, you have misunderstood.

    For further reference, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent book in which he takes an in depth look at the flaws in our intuitive grasp of probabilities. Alternatively, the following paper, originally published in ‘Science’ in 1974, is available as a free PDF.



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  • In reply to #42 by Ignorant Amos:

    I know what Bayes’ Theorem is Amos and I must disagree, it is not the same as our intuitive reasoning about probability. Indeed, the very power of Bayesian reasoning is that it gets around our tendency to get probabilities wrong by making us take account of prior probabilities or base-rate, if you prefer, which we intuitively tend to ignore. You are quite correct that we make many intuitive probability calculations a day and the heuristics we use serve us well enough in simple everyday situations but that is absolutely not the same thing as using Bayesian reasoning. I really struggled with it for ages until I found Luke Meuhlhauser’s An Intuitive Explanation of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’Theorem, which is the best and gentlest introduction I have found anywhere.

    I have also read the Eliezer Yudkowsky article you link to on the Less Wrong community blog and what he actually says in his article, An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem is…

    Bayesian reasoning is very counterintuitive. People do not employ Bayesian reasoning intuitively, find it very difficult to learn Bayesian reasoning when tutored, and rapidly forget Bayesian methods once the tutoring is over. This holds equally true for novice students and highly trained professionals in a field. Bayesian reasoning is apparently one of those things which, like quantum mechanics or the Wason Selection Test, is inherently difficult for humans to grasp with our built-in mental faculties.

    Neither does Richard Carrier claim otherwise. If you believe he does, you have misunderstood.

    For further reference, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent book in which he takes an in depth look at the flaws in our intuitive grasp of probabilities. Alternatively, the following paper, originally published in ‘Science’ in 1974, is available as a free PDF.



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  • In reply to #42 by Ignorant Amos:

    I know what Bayes’ Theorem is Amos and I must disagree, it is not the same as our intuitive reasoning about probability. Indeed, the very power of Bayesian reasoning is that it gets around our tendency to get probabilities wrong by making us take account of prior probabilities or base-rate, if you prefer, which we intuitively tend to ignore. You are quite correct that we make many intuitive probability calculations a day and the heuristics we use serve us well enough in simple everyday situations but that is absolutely not the same thing as using Bayesian reasoning. I really struggled with it for ages until I found Luke Meuhlhauser’s An Intuitive Explanation of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’Theorem, which is the best and gentlest introduction I have found anywhere.

    I have also read the Eliezer Yudkowsky article you link to on the Less Wrong community blog and what he actually says in his article, An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem is…

    Bayesian reasoning is very counterintuitive. People do not employ Bayesian reasoning intuitively, find it very difficult to learn Bayesian reasoning when tutored, and rapidly forget Bayesian methods once the tutoring is over. This holds equally true for novice students and highly trained professionals in a field. Bayesian reasoning is apparently one of those things which, like quantum mechanics or the Wason Selection Test, is inherently difficult for humans to grasp with our built-in mental faculties.

    Neither does Richard Carrier claim otherwise. If you believe he does, you have misunderstood.

    For further reference, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent book in which he takes an in depth look at the flaws in our intuitive grasp of probabilities. Alternatively, the following paper, originally published in ‘Science’ in 1974, is available as a free PDF.



    Report abuse

  • In reply to #42 by Ignorant Amos:

    I know what Bayes’ Theorem is Amos and I must disagree, it is not the same as our intuitive reasoning about probability. Indeed, the very power of Bayesian reasoning is that it gets around our tendency to get probabilities wrong by making us take account of prior probabilities or base-rate, if you prefer, which we intuitively tend to ignore. You are quite correct that we make many intuitive probability calculations a day and the heuristics we use serve us well enough in simple everyday situations but that is absolutely not the same thing as using Bayesian reasoning. I really struggled with it for ages until I found Luke Meuhlhauser’s An Intuitive Explanation of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’Theorem, which is the best and gentlest introduction I have found anywhere.

    I have also read the Eliezer Yudkowsky article you link to on the Less Wrong community blog and what he actually says in his article, An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem is…

    Bayesian reasoning is very counterintuitive. People do not employ Bayesian reasoning intuitively, find it very difficult to learn Bayesian reasoning when tutored, and rapidly forget Bayesian methods once the tutoring is over. This holds equally true for novice students and highly trained professionals in a field. Bayesian reasoning is apparently one of those things which, like quantum mechanics or the Wason Selection Test, is inherently difficult for humans to grasp with our built-in mental faculties.

    Neither does Richard Carrier claim otherwise. If you believe he does, you have misunderstood.

    For further reference, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent book in which he takes an in depth look at the flaws in our intuitive grasp of probabilities. Alternatively, the following paper, originally published in ‘Science’ in 1974, is available as a free PDF.



    Report abuse

  • In reply to #42 by Ignorant Amos:

    I know what Bayes’ Theorem is Amos and I must disagree, it is not the same as our intuitive reasoning about probability. Indeed, the very power of Bayesian reasoning is that it gets around our tendency to get probabilities wrong by making us take account of prior probabilities or base-rate, if you prefer, which we intuitively tend to ignore. You are quite correct that we make many intuitive probability calculations a day and the heuristics we use serve us well enough in simple everyday situations but that is absolutely not the same thing as using Bayesian reasoning. I really struggled with it for ages until I found Luke Meuhlhauser’s An Intuitive Explanation of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’Theorem, which is the best and gentlest introduction I have found anywhere.

    I have also read the Eliezer Yudkowsky article you link to on the Less Wrong community blog and what he actually says in his article, An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes’ Theorem is…

    Bayesian reasoning is very counterintuitive. People do not employ Bayesian reasoning intuitively, find it very difficult to learn Bayesian reasoning when tutored, and rapidly forget Bayesian methods once the tutoring is over. This holds equally true for novice students and highly trained professionals in a field. Bayesian reasoning is apparently one of those things which, like quantum mechanics or the Wason Selection Test, is inherently difficult for humans to grasp with our built-in mental faculties.

    Neither does Richard Carrier claim otherwise. If you believe he does, you have misunderstood.

    For further reference, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent book in which he takes an in depth look at the flaws in our intuitive grasp of probabilities. Alternatively, the following paper, originally published in ‘Science’ in 1974, is available as a free PDF.



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  • 51
    Ignorant Amos says:

    M69att….clearly I have a lot more research into this one than I’ve already carried out.

    Thank you for those links…I have assigned the articles to my kindle for some not-so-light reading.

    Perhaps my understanding is not all it should be. That wouldn’t surprise me. I come here to learn, one can get only so much from a book after all.

    With regards to Carrier, I didn’t read him the way you infer at all.

    As a counter to Kahneman’s hypothesis, can I direct you to a paper by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, unfortunately it costs 40 bucks to access. I’m fortunate enough to be able to access it via my uni online library. The abstract is free though…

    Professional probabilists have long argued over what probability means, with, for example, Bayesians arguing that probabilities refer to subjective degrees of confidence and frequentists arguing that probabilities refer to the frequencies of events in the world. Recently, Gigerenzer and his colleagues have argued that these same distinctions are made by untutored subjects, and that, for many domains, the human mind represents probabilistic information as frequencies. We analyze several reasons why, from an ecological and evolutionary perspective, certain classes of problem-solving mechanisms in the human mind should be expected to represent probabilistic information as frequencies. Then, using a problem famous in the “heuristics and biases” literature for eliciting base rate neglect, we show that correct Bayesian reasoning can be elicited in 76% of subjects – indeed, 92% in the most ecologically valid condition – simply by expressing the problem in frequentist terms. This result adds to the growing body of literature showing that frequentist representations cause various cognitive biases to disappear, including overconfidence, the conjunction fallacy, and base-rate neglect. Taken together, these new findings indicate that the conclusion most common in the literature on judgment under uncertainty – that our inductive reasoning mechanisms do not embody a calculus of probability – will have to be re-examined. From an ecological and evolutionary perspective, humans may turn out to be good intuitive statisticians after all.

    I’ll stick my neck out and throw a bone…

    “In making predictions and judgments under uncertainty, people do not appear to follow the
    calculus of chance or the statistical theory of prediction. Instead, they rely on a limited
    number of heuristics which sometimes yield reasonable judgments and sometimes lead to
    severe and systematic errors.” (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973, p. 237)

    The view that people’s untutored intuitions do not follow a calculus of probability has become the conventional wisdom in psychology today. The literature on human judgment under uncertainty has become a catalog of “cognitive biases” and “normative fallacies”, and terms such as “base-rate fallacy”, overconfidence” and “conjunction fallacy” have entered the lexicon of cognitive psychology. In studies of Bayesian reasoning, for example, psychologists argue about whether people ignore base rates entirely or sometimes use them slightly, but not about whether untutored subjects follow the calculus of Bayes’ rule. It is presumed that they do not.

    As well established as this conclusion appears to be, we think it is
    premature. For one thing, there is not just one “calculus of probability”, but
    many, and the fact that subjects do not follow one of them does not
    preclude the possibility that they are following another. There is Bayes’s
    theorem, Neyman-Pearson decision theory, Fisherian null-hypothesis testing,
    non-additive Baconian probabilities- all of which have different assumptions
    and are therefore appropriate to different kinds of problems.

    […]

    This leaves open the possibility that people are able to make
    intuitive judgments that accord with a calculus of probability, such as
    Bayes’s rule, as long as they represent probabilities as frequencies.

    Anyway, I’m away to read up on some more statistical probability…}80)~

    P.S.

    I know what Bayes’ Theorem is Amos

    I assumed ya did…probably more so than I in fact, but don’t forget about the lurkers who don’t.



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  • Not at all Amos, I probably don’t know any more about it than you. Math isn’t my strong point and I struggled for ages with BT. That’s one of the reasons why I was/am so strongly convinced it’s not intuitive. I do read Less Wrong and they are really into BT on there. I’ll try to get my hands on that paper by Cosmides and Tooby, I have some contacts in my local uni who might be able to help me out. I am aware of them and their work and that they are well respected but have not read that article. Thanks for the sections you posted, it has really whetted my appetite for more. Like you I come here to learn and I have enjoyed our exchange and learned from it.

    By the way, you can drop the 69 in Matt; it’s just an internet convenience because there are just too many Matts’ in the world.



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  • 54
    Ignorant Amos says:

    In reply to #54 by M69att:

    By the way, you can drop the 69 in Matt; it’s just an internet convenience because there are just too many Matts’ in the world.

    Okay. I didn’t want too be forward Matt. You can call me what ya like, some here call me Paul, but they are the ones (friends) with good memories. As far as I’m concerned, I think I might be going senile, or maybe it is just the alcohol…either way, the brain cells are not what they once were.

    The ‘intuition’ concept links us to the ‘free will’ enigma, and the psychology of the same, and the advances in neurobiology of the also same. Sometimes I yearn for some of the old guard…I’m thinking Tyler Durden, HELP!

    Brain might not stand in the way of free will

    All is not what it may seem…apparently. Anyway, all good stuff.



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  • 55
    jayhandy21 says:

    I find this a very intriguing question. Belief tends to be one of those concepts that’s constantly up for interpretation. Is belief an intrinsic condition to the human experience? I’d say yes. Can belief be extremely influenced by external factors? I’d say yes. Can we choose what to believe? I’d say yes. Can we belief one way and act in another? Yes. Are the things we believe in synonymous truth? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Most importantly, are we capable of expressing our beliefs (true or not) despite the majority ideal? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Are we born atheists? No. Are we born christians? No. Culture and belief have to be taught in order to establish the construct of that particular group of people. The most important thing is what environment makes sense to you. What space nurtures and inspires you? More importantly, are you able to coexist with people who believe and live vastly different than you? I am an atheist. I could only come to that conclusion by people believing in god. I have the capacity to identify with this thing called “belief”, but I can only decide what to believe in once I figure out what beliefs exist.

    Thank you for your question.



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  • Next time one of those holy rollers comes to my door I’ll show him a pen and offer him a hundred dollars cash if he can tell me that he believes that the pen is a hammer.

    I wonder what sort of reaction I’ll get. Will he tell me that he can’t believe that which is obviously false, or will he say the pen is in fact a hammer and walk off a hundred dollars richer?



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  • steve@royaltreatment.com
    Jan 25, 2013 at 1:59 am

    As part of the experience of becoming a skeptic, I have found it gratifying to ferret out those unexamined acceptances I still hold, then open myself to choosing otherwise. So I guess I’m saying that choosing is for skeptics, not for believers.

    Scientific sceptics do not simply “choose” from a selection of opinions. They evaluate evidence and make inferences and deductions from this.



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  • I don’t find it difficult to believe that life came from nothing. There are many semi-plausible hypotheses out there, and a lot of smart people working on it, and sooner or later we’ll have an answer.
    (Life may even be self-organising out of the right materials and conditions because of physical/chemical properties, just as stars “self-organise” and form from interstellar materials because of physical/gravitational properties. It may not be freakishly unlikely but practically inevitable that simple archaea/bacteria-grade life arises.)
    I predict we will within a century, assuming no global disasters, etc.

    But be that as it may, I struggle to understand how “life was created by an intelligence” explains anything.
    How did that intelligence come into being?
    We could go down a number of possible roads from here.

    1) An infinite regress, each intelligence was create by another, greater intelligence.

    2) Or the regress is finite, and sooner or later we find an intelligence that evolved from something simpler which ultimately came from non-life.

    3) Or our hypothetical intelligence is eternal.

    To which I would observe:

    1) Not an explanation.

    2) Why bother with any intermediate intelligences, if we’re going to accept abiogenesis at the end of the road.

    3) Doesn’t help explain anything. If we’re going to invoke eternity to say the intelligence doesn’t need further explanation, we may as well just invoke eternity and say life doesn’t need further explanation: the universe is eternal, it has life in it and always has; Earth life came from organic material from elsewhere etc.

    I really do not understand how the religious mind can conceive of an eternal god which creates the universe but needs no creator, but cannot conceive of a universe – eternal or otherwise – that needs no creator.

    “I don’t understand the biochemical pathways through which life can evolve from nothing” cannot be a showstopper if you’re prepared to swallow, without further explanation, the existence of an eternal creator that somehow created life from nothing.



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  • I’d have to say, we are born atheists – we don’t believe in anything.

    Beliefs are acquired later on, not at birth. Only somewhat later do we acquire belief in a god (if we ever do), when “educated” in that belief. Before that “education” we are by default atheists.

    Religious types tend to see atheism as an active act of will, much like the strenuous efforts they must put in daily to continue believing in a god or gods. It isn’t, it doesn’t take any effort at all..



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