Shells and switches

(Text: “Debating an Atheist — Round Four“, Soli Deo Gloria, August 3, 2012)

One of the most important reasons why creationism does not belong in the classroom is because creationism promotes superstitious thinking, which is the antithesis of scientific thinking. Trying to think superstitiously about science really screws things up, and in today’s excerpt from Pastor Stephen Feinstein’s reply to Russell Glasser, we find an almost prototypical example.

Pastor Feinstein begins by reiterating his somewhat garbled understanding of naturalism.

I demonstrated that nature is uniform and that we need it this way just to be able to learn things. I then demonstrated that in a random universe such predication and uniformity is actually impossible.

As Russell Glasser points out, the key flaw in this argument (or one of the flaws, anyway) is that Pastor Feinstein is conflating “random” with “undirected.” These are two words that have a number of meanings, some of which overlap, and that’s where Pastor Feinstein’s superstitions get in the way and confuse things. So let’s number each of the meanings of these terms in order to better keep track of which versions Pastor Feinstein is using in his discussion below.

There are two ways a thing can be directed. One is if some person has some goal in mind and then initiates a series of causes and effects in order to achieve the desired goal. But sometimes there is no goal, nor any person to seek it. Things are just guided by unthinking mechanistic forces. Gravity, for example, doesn’t have any specific goal in mind when directing water to flow downhill, it just influences everything the same way.

Thus, there are two kinds of “directed” phenomena:

  • Directed#1—guided by an intentional desire to achieve a specific objective
  • Directed#2—constrained by natural but non-intentional influences, like the laws of physics.

Now let’s consider “random.” There are multiple meanings possible here as well.

  • Random#1—there are multiple possible outcomes and each has an equal chance of occurring, regardless of environmental influences.
  • Random#2—the outcome is determined by specific rules of cause-and-effect, but the factors involved are so numerous/subtle/complex that it is humanly impossible to track them all well enough to predict the outcome.
  • Random#3—the outcome follows a specific pattern, however the pattern is so long and complex that the outcome appears to be one of the other types of randomness.
  • Random#4—the outcome occurs without reference to the law of cause and effect, and is thus unrelated to any prior condition which occurred before it.

The scientific understanding of the world, thus, is that it is directed#2 and not directed#1, except to the extent that real men and women operate on the world to achieve their own objectives. Some aspects of the evolution of life on earth are random#2, although that’s diminishing as we better understand the specific rules of cause-and-effect that operate in the biological world. Like the weather, though, evolution will always contain a certain amount of random#2-ness, but it never has been and never will be random#1, because evolutionary events are directed#2.

As we’ll see, the wildcard here is going to be the word “chance,” which can be used to mean either “not directed (#1 or #2)” or  “random (#1, #2 or #3).” With a bit of effort, you can even use it for random#4 as well. The term “chance” is the shell in the old shell game that shuffles them around so fast your audience can’t keep track of which is which. Ready? Here we go.

I guess I need to ask a question. Do you believe that time and chance account for both the existence of and the evolution of the universe and life? I often wonder how many times has it been written on the whiteboard in Biology 101 that time + chance equals an orderly universe and life? What my professor meant by this is that the universe is “directed” by time and chance. In other words, it is directed by randomness.

As far as I know, the equation “time + chance = universe” only ever shows up on creationist whiteboards, at least insofar as “chance” means random#1 or random#4. Scientists will tell you that evolution is not directed#1, meaning that it is directed#2 and random#2. Pastor Feinstein, however, assumes that the universe must either be directed#1 or or it must be random#4, hence his example. He believes he has trapped the atheist into asserting that the universe must be directed#1 by random#4 “chance”, and therefore, aha, gotcha.

Where was my bait and switch?

The switch was the dual substitution of directed#1 for directed#2, and random#4 for random#2.

By you implying that the universe is directed, you imply uniformity. But you fail to identify from your presuppositions what is directing it. Well, if you agree with the run-of-the-mill materialistic atomist, you would say that time and chance accounts for the universe.

Here’s where superstitious thinking interferes with scientific understanding. Pastor Feinstein superstitiously attributes everything to God (including preconditions that God Himself would also require, go figure), and because he uses the same superstition to account for everything, he assumes that science must also come up with one single source that accounts for everything: evolution, the Big Bang, gravity, logic—everything. This causes him to conclude that science thinks time and chance account for everything.

But science isn’t like superstition. It doesn’t just pick one thing and then arbitrarily use that one thing as the source for everything else. Science traces out the objective, reality-based relationships between things, and assigns each effect to the verifiable factors that can be observed to cause it. And different effects have different causes. The mechanisms by which stars and galaxies came into being are different from the mechanisms by which new species come into being, which in turn are different from the mechanisms by which living organisms and proto-organisms arise from non-life. And science is learning more and more about all those mechanisms, and how they work, and how they differ. But to Pastor Feinstein, all science is doing is saying that everything is caused by time and chance, one size fits all. That’s superstitious thinking.

Yet, would not uniformity already have to exist for time and chance to create and sustain anything? So in other words you are saying the universe is directed by uniformity. I was saying the exact same thing. The difference is, uniformity within a contingent object is caused, sustained, and determined by something outside of it. Time and chance cannot create uniformity, but instead there would already have to be uniformity to make time and chance cause stellar evolution. So your position requires uniformity to be the precondition of chance, yet as I said last time, these are antonyms. So then, how do you the atheist account for uniformity?

Here’s the shell game again. The atheist’s position requires “uniformity” to be the precondition of “chance.” But which “chance” are we talking about here? The atheist’s chance is undirected#2 and random#2, but Pastor Feinstein says that uniformity is the opposite of “chance.” Clearly he’s talking about uniformity as the opposite of random#4, which he has substituted for the random#2 and undirected#2 conditions science actually observes.

But notice the weird contradiction he gets himself into in the middle of his erstwhile debunking. He claims that “uniformity within a contingent object is caused, sustained, and determined by something outside of it.” But what do those words really mean? In order for science to be possible, and in order for inductive reasoning to be possible, the specific type of “uniformity” you need is a consistent cause-and-effect relationship between the causes and their effects. Our ability to predict the future based on what we’ve seen in the past is an ability that depends on having specific causes that consistently produce specific effects. Apart from this specific type of “uniformity,” all bets are off: future conditions are random#4.

The trouble is, this requirement applies to all causes and effects. Pastor Feinstein claims that “uniformity (i.e. cause-and-effect) within a contingent object must be caused by something outside of it.” But you can’t cause the law of cause and effect, because whatever you propose as the cause, it can’t have a cause-and-effect relationship with anything else unless the law of cause and effect already exists. But if it already exists, then you can’t create it!

This uniformity, which Pastor Feinstein says atheists can’t account for, is another aspect of necessary preconditions for reality—what Pastor Feinstein calls “necessary being” and what Russell calls “axioms.” Pastor Feinstein superstitiously and insensibly gives God credit for causing the law of cause-and-effect, and then defies the atheist to fall into the same self-contradiction, and gloats because the unbeliever refuses.

Nevertheless, I think Pastor Feinstein himself is aware, at some level, of the shell game he’s trying to pull here, because he keeps belaboring the point and trying to defend himself, this time by playing the dictionary game.

If time plus chance equals the universe and life, then I ask you to explain the following definition of chance from “The absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled.” That was the first definition, and the only other one that applies to how we are syntactically using the word was the third definition, which said, “A possibility or probability of anything happening.” So help me out here. Where is my bait and switch?

He found a dictionary definition for “chance” that combines random#1, random#2 and possibly random#4, plus another that refers to chance in the sense of probability. And the dictionary is correct: “chance” can be used in any of those ways, without making certain important distinctions as to why we humans find ourselves unable to predict, understand, or control the event in question. But just to help out Pastor Feinstein (per his request), the bait and switch lies in the way he’s using “chance” to obscure the important differences between directed#1, directed#2, random#2 and random#4.

I have personally been taught within the university system the time plus chance formula, I have read it in books, and the very philosophy of materialistic atomism assumes it. Do you atheists mean something entirely different by chance than the understood definition? If so, then your whole camp is guilty of deconstructive arbitrariness. I pulled no bait and switch. By the understood definition of chance within our syntactical use of it, it is an antonym of uniformity and predication.

And here is the bait and switch laid plain once again. Pastor Feinstein himself gave one of the definitions of “chance” as being the probability of a thing happening. Entire industries are based on the uniformity and predictability of “random chance,” because in many or even most real-world cases, chance is random#2 rather than random#4. What’s the chance of rain on Thursday? What’s the chance that a single male driver under the age of 25 will have a claim on his care insurance policy? What’s the chance of drawing an ace and a face card in blackjack? Real-world chance is uniform and predictable, in the aggregate. You can almost literally take it to the bank. And that’s exactly the same kind of uniform, predictable chance that scientists observe in evolving populations. But Pastor Feinstein swaps in random#4 chance as the antonym of uniformity and prediction, and thinks he has scored big points by doing so.

If [chance] is the governing principle of the universe, as many materialists presuppose, then it is impossible for us to have a uniformity in nature. We do in fact have a uniformity of nature. Therefore, the universe is not governed by chance and therefore materialistic atheism is patently false. Thus once again, I have shown atheism to be illogical, untenable, and impossible. For some reason you do not want to admit this, but that’s fine. You can write that I have failed to do this until you are convinced, but as it stands now, I have in fact won this debate. And I was not kidding when I said I was just getting started.

He wasn’t kidding, he’s just been misled by his own superstitions and thus has completely failed to understand what science is really saying. A scientific understanding of the universe depends on the same consistent law of cause and effect that any god would require in order to be the cause of any particular, contingent effect. God is therefore not axiomatic or necessary, since His proposed divine power is contingent on the same operational laws as are necessary and sufficient for the “uniformity” needed by science. Since the law of cause and effect is not and cannot be contingent on God, and since it must necessarily be true even without any gods, materialism needs no superstition in order to account for the universe we see around us. Pastor Feinstein is kidding, but not intentionally, and even then he’s only kidding himself.

10 Responses to “Shells and switches”

  1. Helmi Says:

    Feinstein is trying really hard to stick labels on people at every opportunity, even when these labels only describe the things the person does NOT believe, or a label that doesn’t actually apply to anyone.

    “materialist” = doesn’t believe in magic
    “atheist” = doesn’t believe in any gods
    “atomist” = an old oversimplification that no one actually believes

    He’s trying really hard to make “NOT believing in magic or gods” to sound like a positive claim, such as “only atoms exist and random chance created everything”. The argument wouldn’t change at all if Feinstein was arguing that Zeus causes lightning. He could then say that his opponent’s “materialistic atomist atheism” must demand that lightning is “caused by random chance”, and therefore “non-belief in gods” is illogical, untenable, and impossible.

  2. Peter B Says:

    To me, Random#1 and Random#4 appear to be the same. I would modify #1 a bit and use #4 to clarify as follows:

    Random#1 (&#4)—there are multiple possible outcomes and each has an defined, generally unknown, chance of occurring, regardless of environmental influences. Thus the various outcomes occur without reference to any prior conditions.

    These thoughts are from my pragmatism in designing hardware and software to produce true randomness. (Computational randomness really a chicken/egg problem. To get randomness one must first have randomness. Using electronic noise as a proxy for turbulence and some well thought out post processing is much better than any conceivable use for randomness.)

  3. Skepticali Says:

    In the first paragraph that you examine, you can also summarize it as “the pastor throws out a straw man to defeat”. That seems an essential tool for the script he’s following. Assume some things about atheism that you have no reason to assume, make further assumptions based on the prior unwarranted assumptions. Attack and declare victory. Even though Russell admitted personally to materialism, humanism and a scientific approach to the world, the Pastor assumes other things under the label of “materialism” that he just doesn’t have a good reason to.

    At the end of the day, I guess we get sucked in by arguments like this because we can deal with complexity without freaking out. And it makes for better conversation to engage these nonsense arguments rather than to say what most of us are thinking: “Occam’s Razor, beeyotch!”

    If you haven’t done this already, I can see you doing a series of posts on the rhetorical tricks employed by apologists. Your experience with Craig, Geisler & Turek’ et al. seem to make you extremely well qualified.

  4. khms Says:

    Yes, random #1 and random #4 are the (same) kind associated with probability, random #2 is known as chaos, and random #3 is pretty much traditional computer pseudo-random stuff.

    And “uniformity” irritates me in this context, because it sounds as if talking about isotropy – which doesn’t exist locally, but does exist globally, thanks to the fast expansion phase after the big bang. Whereas presumably, what y’all are talking about is time and space invariance of the rules.

    In any case, that title kept me wondering why you’d post about Unix …

    • Naked Bunny with a Whip Says:

      Well, there are a lot of religious debates about computer operating systems….

      • khms Says:

        [Warning: tl;dr and OT]

        Is alt.religion.emacs still alive?

        … nope, just an animated corpse. Automated crosspostings, a FAQ, and at least every other message is spam for Jeebus.

        Haven’t really seen a religious computer debate in a long time, come to think of it. Maybe a sign of growing up? Almost 53 can have that effect … thinking further, that profile pic is from when I was slightly more than half my current age. So is the barely visible source code on the right side of it; that was for a DOS-based BBS system. Still meeting a few people I got to know that way every week.

        I feel privileged – strangers trying to preach to me happen extremely rarely over here, and I can’t remember getting any comment when I mention my atheism, unless it’s another atheist. And hey, just a few days ago, the Catholic church around felt under so much pressure, they actually reversed policy on the morning after pill (much to the surprise of pretty much everyone), after cardinal Meisner “talked to the experts and learned the current state”. (You might have heard about several cases of Catholic hospitals refusing treatment to rape victims, because they then might have had to talk about the pills, and their in-house rules forbade that.) Just as before the papers titled “WE ARE POPE”, the Catholic hierarchy over here is under a lot of pressure even from their own believers. When Meisner talked about anti-Catholic pogrom sentiments, even Catholics were audibly appalled.

        Of course, even less religion would still be a good thing. For example, some more movement on marriage equality – we have a foreign minister who is in this not-quite-marriage with his partner, who formerly was vice chancellor, and we still don’t have it.

        Which reminds me of another axis of privilege: it seems his successor still causes people to say they’d vote for his party if they hasn’t got in bed with this “Chinese-looking guy” (he was born in Vietnam). That’s something I’ve never seen. (*I* wouldn’t vote for them because of their politics.)

      • Russell Wain Glasser Says:

        Still OT but I think I’m qualified to talk about this issue.

        I think the platform wars have become muted in recent years because the Internet has made them mostly unnecessary. In a sense, as Tim O’Reilly has said, the Internet IS the operating system.

        Speaking more generally a large percent of what users want to do with their computers is use it as a simple terminal to browse web pages. In many cases, files which were traditionally stored locally are more and more being pushed to online cloud storage. Many people use online email and some never even download it. They store documents online. Non-series gamers play a lot of Facebook or Flash based games that don’t require graphics cards. And even in the area of consoles, it’s more and more becoming a basic assumption that most games will be ported to all of the Big Three different consoles, which also all have internet access now. More and more the distinctions between them are largely cosmetic.

        Developers forced to work within these expectations have wound up developing a more abstract and general approach to software, which generally means writing a lot of drop-in modules with APIs that can be accessed from multiple applications. Server programming is language specific, but end users can run the product on any browser and don’t need to see or care about what’s happening on the back end.

  5. theealex Says:

    Here’s something that might amuse. I’ve been ‘debating’ a Presuppositionalist over on his blog (, after having a Skyped debate (

    He’s very much working through an almost flowchart like script, which has now led to him claiming I’ve said things that he then ‘refutes’ – unfortunately I’ve not actually said ANY of the things he’s claiming, which can be clearly seen from the preceding comments!

  6. hotshoe Says:

    Naughty, naughty, Rob Hughes.

    When we remind you that your bible says something about lying, we don’t care why lying might be wrong in OUR world. We are just reminding you that you are committing a sin in YOUR OWN world – the world in which you pretend to live, the world in which you pretend to obey the laws of your bible, the laws of which you pretend to believe were ordained by your lord God. But obviously it’s all pretend FOR YOU, because something as unimportant as an internet debate with atheists can sway you into throwing away your fealty to the lord’s laws. How shallow and transitory your pretense of belief turns out to be, when “winning” trumps all.

    Too bad, you could have been winning points for your God and doing so honestly, but you chose to throw it all away by committing a sin that YOU as a believer are forbidden to commit.

    Nothing to do with whether or not WE think lying is a sin, or bad for any reason, or bad for no reason whatsoever. YOU are the one who has been ordered by your lord God not to commit that behavior.

    YOU owe someone an apology and it’s not to me. Cower before your lord, Rob Hughes. Maybe come back to this debate when you’ve cleansed yourself of the sin of coveting a win enough to lie for it.

  7. hotshoe Says:

    Umm, posted too soon, meant to say that I submitted the above comment to Rob Hughes blog.- doubt that it will clear his moderation. Who will bet the excuse would be “not sufficient respect for the capital-L Lord”. Well,I may be pleasantly surprised if my comment appears, but I don’t actually want to enter the debate.

    Presuppositionalists are too boring to debate with for more than a minute.

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