Brer Barr and Brer Rabbit

Joan S. Reed

I think Stephen Barr suffers from cognitive dissonance because many of his fellow scientists are atheists and agnostics. Barr makes himself feel better by promoting irrational arguments for God’s existence and by placing too much emphasis on the question of whether or not God exists:

The first article of religion, of course, which must be believed before any divine revelation can be accepted, is that there is a God. (location 397)

You can prove that human beings are embodied spirits or spirited bodies, and there is a metaphysical argument based on this insight for the existence of God. However, the concept of God is contradictory and it can be said that the argument has no content. There is also the argument based on the assumption that moral values are real and not just matters of taste. There are many good reasons for believing in revelation and these arguments are just two of them and do not have any special significance.

Barr explains that Judaism is different from the pagan religions of Biblical times because the Bible says that God created the universe from nothing. The discovery in the 1960s of the radiation produced when hydrogen atoms were formed proved that the universe began to exist 13.7 billion years ago (the Big Bang). This is one of the reasons to believe in revelation because the human authors of the Bible knew nothing about cosmic background radiation and the expanding universe.

Unfortunately, Barr thinks the Big Bang is evidence of God’s existence rather than a reason to believe in the Bible. You can see the error of this reasoning by focusing attention on the way the human mind is structured. Human beings ask questions about observations and invent theories or explanations to answer the questions. Next, humans gather the evidence and decide whether a theory or explanation is true or just probable. There is no such thing as a supernatural explanation or theory. An explanation or theory is good if it is supported by evidence and judged to be true by rational people. There is no evidence at all that God caused the Big Bang.

There is a difference between thinking God caused the Big Bang and saying the Big Bang is evidence of God’s existence. The thought is irrational, unless you are trying to interpret the Bible. The statement is usually expressed disingenuously to persuade people God exists. The Big Bang raises a scientific and a metaphysical question. The science question is: What caused the Big Bang? Since there is no explanation supported by evidence, a metaphysical question arises: Is the universe intelligible? This would be an honest attempt to persuade someone God exists:

There is no explanation for the Big Bang. Let us assume or hope, nevertheless, that the universe is intelligible. This means there must be an explanation, and the explanation is that God caused it.

This is a dishonest attempt:

There is no natural explanation for the Big Bang. Hence, there is a supernatural explanation which western religions call God.

Both attempts at persuading people to make donations to your church can be decisively refuted with the question: What caused God?

Barr props this argument up by telling us how “materialists” hated the Big Bang theory. This reminds me of the Georgia folktale about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Brer Fox captures Brer Rabbit with a tar baby and speculates about how to kill him. Brer Rabbit says, “Hang me, drown me, put please don’t throw me in the briar patch.” Born and raised in a briar patch, Brer Rabbit escapes. Unlike Brer Fox, Brer Barr doesn’t realize he has been duped.

Barr repeatedly refers to atheists and agnostics as materialists. My preference is to call them atheists and agnostics. Most atheists and agnostics don’t know or understand the arguments for God’s existence or pretend they don’t know or understand the arguments. It doesn’t make any sense to distinguish between the two. Atheists and agnostics don’t say, “The arguments for God’s existence are not persuasive.” They say, “I don’t know whether or not God exists.”

Barr is confused about the mind-body problem and says contradictory things. He quotes the following ridiculous statement by Hermann Weyl twice to support his analysis:

One of the great differences between the scientist and the impatient philosopher is that the scientist bides his time. We must await the further development of science, perhaps for centuries, perhaps for thousands of years, before we can design a true and detailed picture of the interwoven texture of Matter, Life, and Soul. (location 4186)

Patience is a virtue in science, but not with questions about the human soul. All the religions teach that we pay for our sins after we die. We don’t have thousands of years to decide what a human being is. The decision made by people with good judgment is that humans are embodied spirits.

Barr does a thorough and good job of explaining why it is irrational to think human beings are collections of molecules. But then he says,

None of this is to deny that there are some very hard questions that arise from the idea that the human mind is not entirely reducible to matter. There certainly are. For instance, if there is something immaterial about the mind, how does it affect the brain and body? (4612)

He’ll have plenty of time in purgatory to think about the mind-body problem, but he should spend his time on Earth learning more about biological evolution. This quote is nonsense not just because he uses the adjective natural implying that there are supernatural explanations:

As we saw, most biologists think that Darwin succeeded in explaining organic structure in a completely natural way. (location 2214)

Biological evolution is implied in the Biblical account of creation, which was always understood to be metaphorical. In my opinion, the following quote proves that natural selection and Lamarckism were not invent by Pierre de Maupertius and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the 18th century:

Animals engage in a struggle for existence [and] for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed… Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to [their] offspring.

This quote is from a 9th century book quoted at location 1859 of “Science and Islam: A History” by Eshan Masood. I thought natural selection was invented by Darwin after Lamarckism (epigenetics) until I read “Evolution Revolution: Evolution is True. Darwin is Wrong. This Changes Everything” by Alan Bennett. The new theories about biological evolution are facilitated variation and natural genetic engineering. Brer Barr should read the following books before he writes about biological evolution again:

  • The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma by Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart
  • Evolution: A View from the 21st Century by James A. Shapiro
  • Biology’s First Law: The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems”by Daniel W. McShea and Robert N. Brandon

Natural selection, epigenetics, facilitated variation, and natural genetic engineering only explain the adaptation of species to the environment. No biologist claims that we understand how microscopic organisms evolved into whales in a period of about 100 million decades. (You get an insight into how rapidly evolution occurred by using decades instead of years or seconds because it takes 20 years for a fertilized human egg to produce all of the cells in a human being.)

The only theory that even attempts to explain common descent is the theory of intelligent design. Just as there is no evidence God caused the Big Bang, there is no evidence of an intelligent designer. In my opinion, the advocates of ID perpetrate a scam by comparing ID with natural selection. Atheists and agnostics go along with this scam because they don’t want to admit that ID is a better theory than natural selection in some sense. Brer Barr has been fooled again.

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