No lungs, no lung cancer!

Steve Hays has a good post titled “A catalogue of evils“. His post is in response to secular philosopher Michael Tooley over the argument from evil. It’s worth reading.

I’d like to tack on the following piece (below) to Steve’s post. It was originally meant to be a comment in his post, but it became too long to post as a comment. So I’ll post it here:

I think I could provide reasonable responses to each of Tooley’s dysteleological examples, but regrettably I don’t have the time to do so. I’ll only respond to one of Tooley’s objections for now, though perhaps I’ll try to respond to more in the future:

Men and women differ in various ways. One interesting way, recently discovered, involves a gene called gastrin-releasing peptide receptor – or GRPR for short – which is linked to abnormal growth of lung cells. It had been noted by earlier medical researchers that women were more likely to develop lung cancer than men, without smoking more, and it turns out that the explanation is that while the GRPR gene in not active in men unless they smoke, it is active in 55% of non-smoking women. (The reason for this is connected with the fact that the gene is on the X chromosome, of which women have two, and men only one.) So greater susceptibility to lung cancer is programmed into women.

1. To my knowledge, the correlation between GRPRs and gender-related susceptibility to lung cancer is still debated. For instance, DeVita is the gold standard textbook for oncology (at least in the United States), but the most recent edition of DeVita notes: “Although many other serum markers have been proposed to have prognostic significance, including neuron-specific enolase, chromogranin, and precursors of gastrin-releasing peptide, none have been strong and reliable enough to warrant general use.”

2. It’s interesting what Tooley leaves out. He leaves out more established genetic associations with lung cancer. For example, he doesn’t mention that the most common tumor suppressor genes in lung cancer are p53, RB1, and p16. Nor that the most common oncogenes in lung cancer are KRAS, HER-2, BCL-2, and EGFR.

3. In particular, let’s take note of EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor). EGFR is important in gender-related differences in lung cancer. It’s been well-established that (activating) EGFR mutations are more commonly found in women who have never smoked (especially East Asian women who have never smoked) than in men who have never smoked. This is significant because EGFR mutations are predictive for a favorable prognosis and survival outcome in lung cancer! That’s because oncologists can specifically target EGFR mutations with certain kinds of cancer drugs (i.e. EGFR-TKIs). See here for more information: “These mutations increase the kinase activity of EGFR, leading to hyperactivation of downstream pro-survival signaling pathways”.

In short, all things equal, a person with an EGFR mutation has a better (not worse) prognosis when it comes to lung cancer! And EGFR mutations are more common in women who have never smoked than in men who have never smoked. So it would seem some genetic mutations are advantageous, thanks to how cancer drugs can target these genetic mutations.

Will Tooley ever be willing to argue some genetic mutations might be evidence of good design? Or at least that some genetic mutations aren’t necessarily evidence of poor design? For one thing, it would seem serendipitous that our cancer drugs align with certain genetic mutations.

Or would Tooley chalk that up to human ingenuity in spite of having to work with poor design? If so, then we’d have to look into the details. If one builds a key that just so happens opens a lock, would human ingenuity or a happy coincidence be able to explain it all if the lock is highly complex, etc.?

4. If we have to single out a single group, then black men have the highest incidence rate when it comes to lung cancer in general. Would Tooley therefore conclude being a black man is evidence of poor design? Of course not. That’d be absurd.

5. If we want to delve deeper, there are different types of lung cancers. Broadly, there are two main types of lung cancers: small cell lung cancers (SCLCs) and non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs). NSCLCs can be further subdivided. The most common NSCLCs are squamous cell carcinomas, large cell carcinomas, and adenocarcinomas.

SCLCs and squamous cell carcinomas are more common in men than women. However, adenocarcinomas are more common in women than men. And adenocarcinomas are the lung cancer that is least correlated with smoking.

Given all this, it seems reasonable to presume Tooley is referring to adenocarcinomas, since he framed his argument in the context of “non-smoking women”.

If so, what’s interesting is GRPRs aren’t common in NCLCs (which, as mentioned, include adenocarcinomas). Rather, GRPRs are most common in SCLCs. As such, it would seem there’s some tension or conflict in Tooley’s argument.


Many worlds interpretation


1. I’ve heard Sean Carroll say (I think it might’ve been in his debate with William Lane Craig or maybe in an interview with Robert Kuhn in Closer to Truth) something along the lines of the MWI is the most minimalistic or simplistic interpretation of quantum theory. I’ve heard that echoed by other less publicly prominent physicists.

Physicists like Max Tegmark take the MWI to mean that anything that can happen will happen in one parallel universe or another.

2. If this MWI is correct, then it’s possible Christianity is true, Jesus was raised from the dead, and so on in this or another universe! However, that would seem to be paradoxical, given their atheism.

3. Of course, even if this MWI is true, that only pushes the question back a step, for what would explain the existence of these parallel universes? What would explain the very first split that led to the very first parallel universe? What would explain the very beginning of it all? What preceded the very beginning?

4. Currently, the standard big bang cosmological model is primarily based on Einstein’s general relativity. Yet, in the very first micro seconds of the universe (before Planck time), general relativity isn’t relevant. Rather, physicists have to look to quantum theory.

5. However, the problem is there’s no consensus on what would bring together general relativity and quantum mechanics into a quantum theory of gravity, which in turn would unite the physical forces which act on the very small to the very large into a theory of everything (TOE).

The frontrunner seems to be one version of string theory or another (e.g. M-theory which unites several string theories).

Another contender is the Hartle-Hawking model. Hartle and Hawking use a mathematical trick called Wick rotation, from which they argue the use of imaginary (rather than real) values for time (t). This then results in the beginning of time not needing to be a singularity, but rather time can be eternal in both forward as well as backwards directions. Hawking describes the result as having “no boundary or edge”, “neither beginning nor end”. It’s like how one can travel east to west or west to east forever.

These (and other) models have significant problems. Not least of which is how fantastical they are, how illogical it is to substitute imaginary time for real time, etc.

6. In short, not only has theoretical physics become increasingly untethered from firm basis in empirical science, but the atheists who rely on these models to argue for not needing a creator of the universe reflect desperation more than common sense or reasonableness.

Brain teaser

This brings to mind the argument from reason. C.S. Lewis’ version is as follows (from chapter 3 “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism” in Miracles):

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them – if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work, then we can have no knowledge.

…[A] strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ (Possible Worlds, p. 209)

…[Naturalism] discredits our processes of reasoning or at least reduces their credit to such a humble level that it can no longer support Naturalism itself.

Moreover, Victor Reppert’s version of the argument from reason significantly improves upon Lewis’ argument.

A contingent universe

Boxing Pythagoras writes:

I certainly agree that an infinite regress is not the logical or metaphysical impossibility which some apologists claim it to be; and I’ve said quite often that the Leibnizian cosmological argument is far stronger than the Kalam.

The prime question, then, becomes, “Is the universe a contingent entity?

Thanks, Boxing Pythagoras. I appreciate your comment, and I thought I might take the time to respond:

1. Just to clarify my own position: I think an infinite regress might be possible in theory, but my inclination is it’s not possible in reality or actuality.

2. If, scientifically speaking, the universe did have a beginning per the standard model of big bang cosmology (among other models), then the universe would be contingent.

I don’t want to pass over this point too quickly, because to deny the universe had a beginning does seem like it’d be in tension with much of the scientific evidence we have today. Obviously there are some renowned cosmologists who argue against the universe having a beginning (e.g. Hartle-Hawking), but it seems their proposals are less well supported. (As a sidenote, cosmologist Aron Wall writes: “Neither Stephen Hawking nor Jim Hartle would make the claim that the Hartle-Hawking state is anywhere near as solidly supported as Darwinian evolution; in fact Jim told me just the other day that he isn’t particularly committed to it being true.”)

In any case, cosmologist Aron Wall has a series of posts which provide the scientific and mathematical background to the question:

3. However, if the universe had no beginning, it seems to me it is still possible the universe is contingent. To take a comparison, I am a contingent being inasmuch as I did not necessarily have to exist, say, if my parents had never met.

Likewise, whether or not the universe had a beginning, it exists, but did the universe necessarily have to exist? It seems to me the universe did not necessarily have to exist, because it is at least possible there could have been nothing rather than something. As such, the universe seems contingent.

4. Furthermore, whether or not the universe had a beginning, the universe undergoes change. That includes change in and of itself, such as the intrinsic expansion of the universe, in which the 3D manifold of space itself expands. However, the universe did not necessarily have to undergo change. It seems possible the universe could have existed as an entirely static universe. As such, the universe seems contingent.

Pascal’s wager

1. Blaise Pascal’s Pensées was an unfinished apologetic work. Incomplete due to Pascal’s early death.

2. I assume his sections on the wager were unfinished too. If so, the wager may represent Pascal’s brainstorming an argument rather than delivering a finished product. Like jotting down notes for an interesting idea or story, but it’s not ready for publication.

3. In addition, Pascal in Pensées presents no less than three different wagers:

“Pascal’s Wager” is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe, in God. The name is somewhat misleading, for in a single section of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a ‘wager’ – it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as “Pascal’s Wager” [i.e. #233, below].

4. Given all the above, the wager should be regarded as a flexible give-and-take discourse, an exchange of ideas, something like that. Something people can go back and forth on, tweak according to their own reasoning, try to improve on, and so on.

Continue reading

Why is there something rather than nothing?


Steve Hays notes:

Even if (ex hypothesi) the universe is eternal, it may still be contingent.

Good point! I think this is important to highlight.

It seems to me modern cosmological arguments like William Lane Craig’s kalam argument depend on the universe having a beginning. Hence the need for supplemental arguments such as arguments for standard big bang cosmology and arguments against the possibility of an infinite regress.

However, suppose standard big bang cosmology is mistaken. Suppose the universe had no beginning. Suppose it is possible to have an infinite regress. Nevertheless, Leibniz’s famous question remains: why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there an eternal universe rather than nothing?

As an aside, it seems to me it is possible to have an infinite regress at least in theory if not actuality (e.g. Zeno paradoxes).

Brain in a vat


Some atheists (among others) like to bring up the Matrix, brain in a vat, and related hypotheticals as steps in an argument against God. Or at least as steps in an argument against theistic arguments (e.g. certain transcendental arguments for the existence of God).

1. I’ve talked a bit about virtual reality simulations (in which I’d include the Matrix) in my post “Oculus Grift“. Here’s the most relevant excerpt:

[I]s it possible to produce minds like ours (human consciousness) from what amounts to 0s and 1s? Among other issues, I would think this would run smack into the hard problem of consciousness. As such, I doubt minds can be recreated from bits and bytes.

2. Similarly, is an actual brain in a vat (if that is what we are) equivalent to a human brain? Is it equivalent to a human being in our entirety including human consciousness? For example, how is a physical brain sitting in a vat of chemicals stimulated with neuroelectrical impulses equivalent to how our central and peripheral nervous system receive and process external stimuli? If a brain in a vat is not equivalent, then how can a brain in a vat have the same kinds of perceptions and experiences that a human has? If a brain in a vat cannot have the same kinds perceptions and experiences that humans can have, then the argument falls flat.

3. An obvious point is, if sentient machines, mad scientists, or demons exist, then they’re each contingent beings. As contingent beings, what brought about their existence? Who or what created these beings? Who or what created mad scientists and demons? For instance, if demons exist, then that presumes the existence of a supernatural realm, which would defeat atheism/naturalism. Hence it only pushes the question back a step.

By contrast, on Christian theism, God is a necessary being, not a contingent being. This isn’t special pleading because atheists have often argued the same for the universe itself (e.g. Carl Sagan’s “the cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be”). Likewise there are abstract objects like numbers which are arguably necessary rather than contingent.

A response is that sentient machines, mad scientists, and demons are just hypothetical beings. They’re not supposed to be real. If that’s the case, then why should anyone take the argument itself seriously since the entire argument is supposed to be a hypothetical? It isn’t supposed to be real either. At most, the argument is just for fun, but not to be taken seriously.

4. If you’re forcibly plugged into the Matrix by futuristic sentient machine overlords, or you’ve been kept alive as a brain in a vat by a mad scientist, or (reaching even further back) you’re under the spell of an evil Cartesian demon, then the following might be arguable:

a. You know you can’t necessarily trust your senses or perceptions. What you experience may or may not correspond to reality.

b. You know you exist. You know you’re real even if nothing else is real. Cogito, ergo sum.

c. You know you have some idea of “God”. The idea of God is independent of the existence of an external world. The idea of “God” is in your mind.

d. You could reason your way to the existence of this God. Perhaps you could arrive at this God’s existence via an ontological argument. As such, you know God exists.

e. You could reason your way to the kind of God this God would be. You could reason this God would have to be the greatest necessary being. You could reason this God must be all powerful, all knowing, and all good. You could reason this God must be transcendent as well as personal.

5. The Matrix and brain in a vat scenarios could grant our senses are trustworthy or reliable, but deny the trustworthiness or reliability of what’s fed to our senses, viz. the external world.

However, an ontological argument for God along with variations in the other arguments Steve mentioned (e.g. cosmological, teleological, argument from reason) don’t necessarily need to rely on our senses being trustworthy or reliable. These arguments don’t depend on the trustworthiness or reliability of our senses per se, but can still argue God exists.

6. If there are (say) subatomic particles which we cannot observe with our senses or perception, but we are justified in believing they exist and are real because of their explanatory power and scope, then perhaps the same could apply to the existence and reality of the external world given its explanatory power and scope.

7. If there are sentient machines or mad scientists who have put us in the Matrix or turned us into brains in a vat, then that would mean they would have created a faux reality that’s so well designed that we could investigate it and describe it with complex mathematical equations and scientific laws (e.g. quantum mechanics, general relativity).

Further, this faux reality would be populated by scores of what appear to be other living organisms, each of which appears to be so complex that we can’t even recreate a single-cell organism from scratch.

There’s still so much more left for us to uncover in life, the universe, and everything too.

As such, this faux reality would presumably have to be more complex than anything we are capable of achieving today. In fact, at least prima facie, wouldn’t true reality (whatever it is) have to be more complex than this faux reality in which we live since faux reality is a sub-creation? Yet our own sub-creations are nowhere near as complex as our reality (e.g. the Sims, Oculus Rift).

8. In addition, it’s not as if sentient machines would know what it’s like to be human, so they likely would not be able to properly design aspects of this faux reality that relate to humans, which is much of this faux reality. Indeed, artificially intelligent (sentient) machines in and of themselves seem quite unlikely (e.g. see Bill Dembski’s “Artificial Intelligence’s Homunculus Problem: Why AI Is Unlikely Ever to Match Human Intelligence“).

Minimally, it would take a vast team of mad scientists each of whom is a genius specialist in a particular field to design such a complex reality. That seems highly unlikely too.

9. Moreover, for this faux reality to work well enough to fool us, it would seem to have to depend on the true reality to some significant degree. Otherwise, would the smartest among us be fooled? Otherwise, wouldn’t the Newtons, Einsteins, Feynmans, and Hayses of this world detect glitches in the system? (Assuming Newtons, Einsteins, Feynmans, and Hayses are not concocted as part of the system, but like the rest of us are plugged into the Matrix or brains in a vat.) Yet, if it does depend on true reality to some significant degree, then exactly how false is our faux reality?

10. In short, the Matrix, brain in a vat, and related hypotheticals seem to have a lot more explaining to do than the more common sense belief in the existence of a real external world, especially in the context of Christian theism.