June 17th, 2008


50 reasons (NOT) to believe in god

PZ Myers pharyngula posted a list of "50 reasons to believe in god" that some crazy theist sent him. Fortunately, I was spared receiving the original email, but I've been looking for something to talk about other than this crazy Catholic Cindy who's invaded an atheist listserv I'm on. So, what I've decided to do, is tackle one a day. That should keep me busy for a while.

You can read the whole list here. I'm sure the commenters there will have their own takes on most of these, but I haven't read them, so it's possible I'll repeat something.

Here goes:

It is easy to prove to yourself that God is real. The evidence is all around you. Here are 50 simple proofs:

#1 Whilst agreeing that random patterns occur naturally by chance, DNA, however, consists of code, which requires a designer.

Oh, my. So many misconceptions and so little time...

Let's start with the big one: her use of the word "code".

What makes DNA a code? DNA is just a long chain of protein molecules with the peculiar property that it is self-replicating, i.e. it makes copies of itself when the appropriate raw materials are in place. That's why DNA hangs around. What makes DNA a code is that when you copy certain sections of the molecule chain, you get certain proteins that our bodies use for things. But what came first? The use or the "code"? Unlike programming code in computers, the purpose arose after the existence of the protein--the protein came into being, now what is it good for?--not the other way around. DNA stumbles upon things, it isn't "written". So the analogy with computer code is seriously flawed.

Of course, that's one of the major problems with most theistic arguments of this sort. They take a perfectly good analogy, insist that it's "literal" just like their good book. "Code" is a term that is used as a shorthand, because it does have some properties in common with a code, but it is an metaphor only. "Code" may require a designer, but DNA is not "code" in that sense.

Let's consider the meanings of the word "code". In what sense is DNA a code, if it's not like a computer code?

According to the OED, code(1) n. 2. A system or collection of rules or regulations on any subject.

Okay, what part of that definition says that the rules were designed? It's a code in the sense that it's a collection of the rules by which life works. But is that really the use intended?

Use number three in the same entry is the usual one we think of, computer code: Any system of symbols and rules for expressing information or instructions in a form usable by a computer or other machine for processing or transmitting information.
Uses in biology and linguistics are extensions of this use, extensions which are typically metaphorical to begin with.

You can see why the metaphor is such a powerful one. A system of rules for expressing information. That's what DNA is. But again, while computer code is designed by people, technically, there is nothing about this definition that requires the use of an articifial code. A natural code, even one arising by chance, is not ruled out here.

Some people get tired of atheists talking about logical fallacies, but if theists would stop making them, we'd stop pointing them out. For the record, this one is the Fallacy of Equivocation. Rather like what theists do with the word "faith". It means anything they want it to mean.

If this is a reason to believe in god, it's a pretty lousy one, since it depends on the unproven assumption that the code of DNA is explicitly artificial rather than natural. Since there is no other evidence to support that claim, it seems pretty clear this is not a good reason to believe in anything.

1 down, 49 to go.