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The following is used by Permission from Michael Shermer 4/9/02. Copyright 2002 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, e-Skeptic magazine www.skeptic.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Shermer / Hugh Ross Debate on God Transcript
"The Universe Speaks"
(Debate between Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Michael Shermer on the Scientific Evidence Concerning the Existence of God)
Assembled by Gary L. Bennett
[WITH COMMENTARY FROM SHERMER IN BRACKETED CAPS]
On 19 March 2002, the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship of Boise State University hosted a debate on whether or not there was scientific evidence to support the existence of God. The debate featured Dr. Hugh Ross, President and Director of Reasons to Believe, and Dr. Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic Magazine and Director of The Skeptics Society. An estimated 1,000 people attended the debate.
[ACTUALLY, IT WAS NOT TECHNICALLY A "DEBATE" AS ROSS REFUSES TO PARTICIPATE IN DEBATES. HE APPARENTLY DIDN'T EVEN KNOW I WAS GOING TO BE THERE UNTIL THE DAY BEFORE THE EVENT--SOME LACK OF COMMUNICATION PROBLEM IN HIS OFFICE. HE SAID HE NORMALLY ONLY DOES PANEL DISCUSSIONS, AND THESE ONLY WITH "COLLEAGUES," WHICH HE INDICATED TO ME THAT I WAS NOT--AN ASTRONOMICAL COLLEAGUE THAT IS.]
Each speaker was given 35 minutes to talk then the moderator took questions from the floor. Dr. Daryl J. Macomb of the BSU Physics Department was the faculty representative seated at the table with Drs. Ross and Shermer.
The following are my notes of the debate, organized according to the general sequence of events. The notes are by no means complete and there are, no doubt, errors in recording what was said. In particular not all questions and comments from the audience were captured. At least two people were there with video recording equipment so presumably there is a more complete record available. (KBCI-TV, Boise's Channel 2, carried a garbled news item on the debate during the 10 PM news on 24 March 2002.)
Dr. Hugh Ross's Presentation
NOTE: Ross said his viewgraphs were posted at his Web site: www.reasons.org.
Ross began by saying that he was not born a Christian; in fact, he said he was 27 years old before he met his first Christian. (Ross said he was from Canada.) Ross's basic message was that the Universe appeared to be designed and to have a creator.
[HE ALSO SAID HE WOULD RENOUNCE HIS FAITH IF IT TURNED OUT THAT THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE DID NOT POINT TO A CREATOR, THEN HE BEGAN HIS LITANY OF FINE-TUNED CONSTANTS AND LAWS THAT LED HIM TO CHOOSE CHRISTIANITY]
Ross said it was his study of the Big Bang that persuaded him that God existed. He said he had looked at various holy books but only the Bible offered the explanation he sought. Ross said he followed 1 Thessalonians 5:21 which said, "Test everything".
Ross listed the following nine creation tests:
1. Transcendent cosmic origin
2. Cosmic fine-tuning
3. Solar System fine-tuning
4. Origins of life
5. Map of biomolecules
6. Speciation/extinction model
7. Mass extinctions and speciations
8. Faint Sun paradox
9. DNA history for primates
Ross said with the limited time available he would focus on the first few items. Regarding the first item, he said that the singularity ("Big Bang") origin of the Universe was a transcendent event that must have had a cause. Later he would argue that only the Christian God could create in a transcendent manner. As to the faint Sun paradox, he said the changing output from the Sun showed that there had to have been different life at different times.
Ross asked the audience if they could name who first wrote about the Big Bang. He said it was Job and Moses. He referred the audience to these biblical verses:
Genesis 1:1, 2:3, 2:4
Isaiah 40:26, 45:18, 42:5
Ross then cited a paper by Hawking and Penrose in which Ross said it was stated that all mass, energy, space, and time must be traceable back to a beginning. Ross argued there must be a causal event.
Ross said it was unique to Christianity that God creates transcendentally. Ross said other religions speak to space and time but only Christianity speaks to transcendence.
Ross made a passing reference to the Second Law of Thermodynamics then went on to say that it was a transcendent entity that brought the Universe into existence.
Ross cited these biblical verses to show that God stretched the heavens ("inflationary theory of the early expansion of the Universe"):
Isaiah 40:22, 42:5, 44:25, 45:12, 48:13, 51:13
Jeremiah 10:12, 51:15
Ross said that astronomers have found that the Universe has a flat geometry. He said the mass density of the Universe contributes 35% to the flatness of the Universe. He noted that there was a space-energy density that was now speeding up the expansion of the Universe.
Ross said the Universe had been slowing down for the first 8 billion years and then has been speeding up for the next 6 billion years.
Ross cited "atheist astronomer" Lawrence Krauss who, he said, first alerted the community three years ago about the fine-tuned mass density of the Universe.
Ross said that the mass was flat to 1 part in 1060 and space was flat to 1 part in 10120. He said Penrose said the Universe was flat to 1 part in 10240.
Ross noted that the newly built gravity wave telescope was good to 1 part in 1023. Ross then concluded that this "entity" who created the Universe was 1060/1023 times more intelligent than were the people who designed the gravity wave telescope.
Ross then cited two "Jewish physicists" who had written a paper on the degrees of fine-tuning of the Universe. Ross next mentioned a Swiss paper that presented a disturbing cosmic perspective.
Ross listed the following two models that have been advanced to explain the accelerating expansion of the Universe:
gravity operates on higher dimensions (brane model) variable pressure term
In Ross's view these models were just substituting design for design. Ross said the Universe was flat to within 5%.
Ross listed the following probabilities for a planetary parameter to be in the needed range for life. (He said there were 165 design characteristics.)
galaxy size .1
galaxy type .1
galaxy location .1
star distance from galactic center .05
With all the various design characteristics included Ross said that there was a 1 chance in 10182 for a planet to have the capacity to support life.
Ross said that one must develop models that can be tested. He said he had developed such models and he listed the following predictions about these models:
The case for a transcendent beginning will become more secure as time goes on The number of fine-tuned parameters will increase The degree of fine-tuning will increase
From his estimation of the high improbability of the Universe being so finely tuned and the high improbability of life arising on Earth he concluded that everything must have been designed by the Christian God.
Ross noted there were some rebuttals to his argument, but he said the rebuttals were all philosophical and not scientific. As an example, he mentioned the concept of multiple universes in which we happen to live in the one that is just right. He noted that for an infinite number of universes an infinite variety of sets of attributes would be possible.
To rebut the existence of other universes Ross discussed the gambler's fallacy. He said that if one flipped a coin thousands of times and it always came up heads then one should bet that the next flip would be heads if the sample size is one.
He noted that one could have 100,000 flips with 100,000 coins but he said that philosophically the sample size is one (there was no evidence the other coins are there). Ross said that space is manifold and the universes can't overlap.
Ross cited a paper by Lawrence Krauss published "a few months ago" in Astrophysics Journal in which Krauss dealt with the consequences of an accelerated expansion of the Universe. According to Ross, Krauss said that the knowledge base would decrease as the Universe expands. Metabolism will cease and consciousness will end. Ross said there would be no hope, no purpose, and no destiny.
Ross then cited a paper by Brandon Carter who reportedly said the window for civilization was about 41,000 years. Ross reportedly said this meant that humans were created at the best possible time to see most of the Universe. Ross said a creator wishes us to have this view.
From Brandon Carter, Ross noted the "Anthropic Principle Inequality":
15-billion-year minimum to prepare home for humanity But, longevity of human civilization is less than 41,000 years
Ross concluded that there must be a higher purpose for humanity for the creator to have spent so much time preparing for us.
Ross claimed the laws of physics have been designed by God to turn us away from evil.
Ross gave some personal examples to illustrate that the experience of the Garden of Eden has caused humans to experience more pain:
Abusing tools leads to less productivity and reduced longevity of the tools Abusing employees leads to less productivity and reduced longevity
Ross said that God created the Universe for humanity. He said we lived in the best possible paradise under the laws of physics. He said God was using evil and suffering to train us to conquer it. From this he said humans are to conquer evil and then the redeemed humans will receive the new creation with brand new laws of physics and new experiences.
At this point Ross's time ran out so he listed the following sources for more information on his views:
Telephone 626-335-5282 (5 PM - 7 PM, Pacific Time) for subscriptions to Connections.
Obtain Facts for Faith by calling 800-482-7836.
Check out the Web site for Reasons to Believe: www.reasons.org
Dr. Michael Shermer's Presentation
[NOTE: Much of the information in Dr. Shermer's presentation appeared to come from his book, How We Believe, The Search for God in an Age of Science]
Shermer began his presentation by noting that Ross had referred to Lawrence Krauss as an "atheist astronomer" and to two other physicists as "Jewish physicists". Shermer wondered why Ross would attach a bias to a description unless Ross was pursuing some sort of agenda. For example, an astronomer is just an astronomer not an atheist astronomer.
[I ALSO INQUIRED WHETHER ROSS IDENTIFIES CHRISTIAN ASTRONOMERS AS SUCH. OF COURSE, HE DOESN'T]
Shermer asked those who had brought Bibles to check Ross's references. Later there was time for one person to read one of the verses cited by Ross. By a large stretch of the imagination it might have related to what Ross what talking about.
[IT WAS A PASSAGE ABOUT GOD EXPANDING A TENT FOR MORE PEOPLE TO FIT IN IT; THIS WAS SUPPOSEDLY THE DESCRIPTION OF THE BIG BANG SINGULARITY]
Shermer said he had once been a born-again Christian and that he went door-to-door with the Christian message. He said he had been a sort of Amway salesman with Bibles. Shermer said after much thought and study he became a born-again atheist but he said he is now probably more of a born-again agnostic.
Shermer noted that Christians weren't the only ones to see justification for their religious beliefs in science. He mentioned in particular the writings of Fritjof Capra (e.g., The Tao of Physics, An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism) which argued that eastern religions are related to physics.
Shermer said that humans are pattern-seeking animals (he used a diagram of an absent "square" to illustrate this).
Shermer said that religion is a matter of faith. He observed that it is dangerous to apply reason to religion. He stated that science and religion are two separate tiers.
Shermer listed two models of the relationship between science and religion:
Overlapping model -- science and religion complement each other (Shermer said this only works if you already believe)
[MY THIRD TIER IS THE NONOVERLAPPING MODEL]
Regarding his diagram of the absent square he said the brain has a model of a square so it sees a square. Again, he noted that humans are pattern-seeking creatures. He said the absent square could be a metaphor for God: there is no there there. He observed that if one already believes one will see God.
As another example of pattern-seeking Shermer discussed the so-called "Bible code" in which people claimed to see messages in the Bible. For example, one person claimed to see a prediction of Kennedy's assassination. Shermer said that these messages, which allegedly came from computer analyses, required a human to "see" them first. He questioned whether anyone had found a "prediction" that had not already been fulfilled. Moreover, he said that skeptics had shown that one could apply the same methods to other texts (e.g., the works of Shakespeare) and that the skeptics had "seen" "predictions".
Shermer said the key question is how to tell the difference between patterns in our minds and real patterns.
Citing Henry Morris's book, Remarkable Birth, Shermer said the creationists believe God will tell us the age of the Earth so there is no need to determine the age of the Earth. Shermer said Ross was on the side of evolution.
Shermer next quoted from Duane Gish's book, Evolution, The Fossils Say No! in which Gish claimed on page 42 that "We do not know how God created, what processes He used, for God used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to divine creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigations anything about the creative processes used by God". This puts creationism outside the realm of science.
Shermer asked: Don't you want to know how the intelligent designer/God did it?
Shermer then began discussing the basis of personal religious beliefs. He said the number one predictor of one's personal religious beliefs is where one was born and when one was born. In short, religious beliefs are a product of the social context. He added that this is true for all beliefs. Our beliefs can often be traced to what our parents believed.
Shermer asked the audience how many were Christians. The overwhelming majority held up their hands. Shermer then asked how many of these people would change their beliefs if scientists found that some of the probabilities Ross had cited were shown to be changing in a direction against belief. Reportedly about two people held up their hands. Shermer noted that beliefs are not based on reasons; that we come to our beliefs by other (emotional) means and then search for reasons to bolster our beliefs.
[I DIDN'T SEE A SINGLE HAND GO UP. MY POINT WAS THAT ROSS'S ORGANIZATION IS A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME BECAUSE PEOPLE DO NOT BELIEVE BASED ON "REASONS" OR EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE. THEY BELIEVE FOR SOCIAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL REASONS THAT ARE PERSONAL]
Regarding the drives that male psychologists attribute to women, Shermer cited social psychologist Carol Tavris who had said that penis envy had been attributed to the wrong sex.
[THIS WAS A LITTLE JOKE--"FREUD WAS RIGHT ABOUT PENIS ENVY, JUST WRONG ABOUT WHICH SEX HAS IT"--IN THE CONTEXT OF FREUD'S THEORIES ON RELIGION, WHICH I DISCUSSED]
Shermer contrasted the reasons "Why I Believe" with the reasons "Why Others Believe". He said a study showed that the majority of people who are believers said they were believers because of the good design of the Universe. When asked why they thought other people believe these believers said it was because the others had been raised to believe or it gave them comfort and a purpose in life.
Shermer said this was a case of "attribution bias". We attribute different motives to others: the motives are rational for us and psychological for others. He said it is difficult for us to see in ourselves why we believe but we can see the motives in others.
Shermer noted that there have been 10,000 religious beliefs in the last 10,000 years. Christianity alone has 1500 denominations. How does one choose?
Shermer posed the question of how to test the Bible. For example, he noted that the Bible has two creation stories -- they both can't be right. If one posits that God created the Universe then who created God? If an intelligent designer created the Universe then an even more intelligent designer must have created the intelligent designer. This becomes an infinite regress so why invoke the God hypothesis?
Shermer noted that some scientists think a quantum fluctuation created the Universe and that this quantum fluctuation had no cause. Shermer likened the creation question to Martin Gardner's "mysterian mystery": the origin of the Universe may not only be unknown it may be unknowable to us. This is not an argument for or against God.
Shermer also pointed out that the Bible does not contain moral absolutes.
Shermer concluded that religious beliefs come down to personality preferences. He urged the audience to keep an open mind and to practice tolerance.
The Skeptics Society maintains a Web site at www.skeptic.com.
Questions and Answers
[NOTE: I did not make notes on many of the questions because they weren't that interesting.]
Dr. Macomb, the BSU faculty representative, began with two questions for Dr. Ross:
Explain the origin of the eye
What was the brain capacity of Adam and Eve and has human brain capacity gone downhill since the Garden of Eden?
Ross said there were 15 major creation accounts in the Bible. He noted that early Hebrew had a limited vocabulary so words were used for many things. He said that there were three different translations for the Hebrew word "day". He said that using the meaning of "days" that meant a long time presented no conflict between the two creation accounts in Genesis.
Ross said there were two different kinds of miracles:
those done within the laws of physics
those transcendent to the laws of physics.
Ross added that a principle of Christianity is that the miraculous is conserved, i.e., there are only a limited number of miracles.
Shermer gave a brief summary of the origin of the eye, noting that its structure was clearly consistent with the evolutionary model.
A student asked what hope was there. Ross said that he was also a pastor at a church in the Pasadena area and he saw reason for hope in Christianity.
Another student said she had a shamanist father and a Jehovah's Witness mother and she wondered what she should believe. While both Ross and Shermer had their comments, Shermer noted the joke: What would you get if you crossed a Jehovah's Witness with an atheist? Answer: Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.
Another student asked how one could distinguish between one creator and many creators.
Ross said the design of the Universe made it clear that only one creator had been involved not multiple creators (who presumably wouldn't have been coordinated).
Ross cited Psalm 95 to argue that God operates in space and time; God can compress and expand time. Ross said God could operate in two dimensions of time. Ross said God can create space-time and move through the dimensions at will.
A student asked Ross a long, rambling question about what caused the Universe to begin. Shermer was finally forced to interrupt, pointing out that it didn't matter WHO or WHAT started the Universe, or who or what put amino acids together and proteins together to make life, the student was just putting the "g" word in front of everything to make his point. Shermer said the student could do that with any name or deity, and he'd still have the same argument. Shermer said that science can't deal with the existence of God and that people who stick "god" in their discussions about origins are just pushing a particular religious agenda.
In answer to one of the questions, Shermer said agnosticism was the only defensible position.
Ross said that the latest results show the Universe was 14 .5 billion years old. He said there was no primordial soup and that life arose after the "frustration event" (presumably meteor bombardment on the early Earth) 3.8 billion years ago. Since it was so quick life Ross said life did not evolve naturally. He said there was not enough time. He said he has a book coming out next year dealing with this matter.
Ross went on to say that evolution ignores the changes in the Earth such as the slowing of Earth's rotation from 5 hours to 24 hours; plate tectonics; and an increase in the Sun's output by 35%.
Shermer countered by citing the example of the wallabies that were taken from Australia to Hawaii in 1929. By the 1980s the Hawaiian wallabies would not mate with the Australian wallabies. In short a new species had arisen. Shermer said that speciation happens in decades and even years -- it is not the long process described by Ross.
The moderator finally called a halt to the questions and the audience dispersed except for those who spoke with Ross and Shermer or went to the tables outside (see next section).
The Battle of the Tables
Three tables were set up outside the Jordan Ballroom: one by Idaho Atheists, Inc. (IAI), one by a student Christian group and one for Dr. Shermer. Bret Blakeslee of IAI arrived early to set up the IAI table (he brought his own table) and was able to get the best spot. The Christian students were reportedly not pleased but they set up their table nearby. Shermer's table had been put in an out-of-the-way place so Blakeslee helped Shermer move it next to the IAI table.
Blakeslee reported a brisk business from curious students who came to talk and to pick up literature. Even the students at the Christian table would come over to pick up some literature and then to scurry back to the safety of their own table. (Kathie Blakeslee referred to these students as "scurriers".) Blakeslee reported good interest in atheism from a number of students and that most of Shermer's books were sold. Several students, who had their own doubts about religion, were relieved to find out that they weren't alone.