I would like to thank tothesource reader Dirk Tebben for writing a cogent and sincere response to aspects of my critique of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.  I will address his points in the order in which they appear (see Dirk Tebben’s letter in sidebar).

First, the origin of the universe and the problem of infinite regress. You believe that I’ve missed Harris’ point, or even worse, that I thought I was refuting Harris but was actually only repeating his point. Therefore, I really ended up stabbing myself with his lance, so to speak.

Let’s sort this out. You rightly restate my argument that “all inferences to the origin of the universe are faced with the same problem [of an infinite regress].”  You then say, “I believe this is exactly Harris’ point,” meaning, I think, that since Harris believes that all inferences to the origin of the universe—be they scientific, atheistic, or theistic—are faced with the same problem, then it is as foolish for theists as it is for atheists or scientists to argue anything about the origin of the universe. So we all ought to be humble and say nothing.

That does indeed seem to be Harris’ point, but if we scratch the argument a bit, we find that his pretence to humble neutrality is decidedly thin. Here are Harris’ own words:

“As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question. Any being capable of creating a complex world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed repeatedly, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.”

For Harris, the reason that there is an infinite regress, is that only evolution can create an intelligent being. But there are two problems with this assertion, only one of which I noted in my article.

Again, the problem of infinite regress must be answered by all theories about the origin of the universe. It is not enough simply to note that everyone faces the same problem.  Harris himself simply pleads ignorance, and shrugs his shoulders:  “The truth is that no one knows how or why the universe came into being.” But if Harris were right, and the how and why were utter mysteries, then we would have to be agnostic about whether it had a divine cause, and Harris is clearly not agnostic.

Even more telling, Harris seems to be speaking largely for himself here, in order to serve his argument and make religious believers seem prideful and himself humble. There are plenty of scientists offering all manner of conjectures about how the universe began, and in almost all cases, they attempt to include the “why” in the “how.” (How a certain physical reaction takes place, also tells you why it had to take place.) In each case—whether these scientists hold to eternally oscillating universes forever expanding and crashing, or multiple bubble universes, or a parallel universes in a multiverse, or one universe made from one Big Bang—they wrestle with the same problem, the problem of infinite regress, and try to answer it in different ways.

But there is another important lesson here, one Harris misses.  As cosmologist John Barrow (who is no theist) states in The Origin of the Universe, the variety of answers given by scientists to the question of the origin of the universe rely on taking different trajectories from particular assumptions about quantum mechanics. Barrow warns us that

“one should be wary of the fact that many of the studies of quantum cosmology are motivated by the desire to avoid an initial singularity of infinite density, so they tend to focus on quantum cosmologies that avoid a singularity at the expense of those that might contain one. It is worth noticing that the traditional big-bang picture of the universe emerging from a singularity is, strictly speaking, also creation out of absolutely nothing.”

In short, there is one scientific theory about origins in our list—the Big Bang of a single universe—that many scientists do not like, because it seems all too familiar. It sounds like the creation ex nihilo of Genesis. Thus, Harris is wrong that scientists simply plead ignorance. Even worse, the scientists themselves who do offer theories of the how and why are largely motivated to offer their conjectures by their repugnance to the possibility that science would support religious belief. One suspects that Harris wants to plead ignorance for precisely this reason: that the most reputable and evidentially supported view of our universe’s beginnings looks suspiciously Biblical.

But there is a second problem in Harris’ assertion, one that I didn’t note in my original article. Again, Harris regards infinite regress as a problem for Intelligent Design type-arguments because “the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.” Therefore, if God is intelligent, he must have evolved, and if he evolved from simpler non-intelligent origins, then we have to explain the origin of the simpler material from which he evolved, and if an intelligent designer made that, well, here we go again.

The particular problem with this assertion is that it takes for granted something that would have to be demonstrated. Harris believes, as many like him do, that human intelligence is entirely explained as the result of natural selection.

But there are many competent, well-known scientists who disagree. Physicist Paul Davies notes that “We have certain skills—for example, we can jump streams and catch falling apples—which are necessary for getting by in the world,” and hence these things can be explained by natural selection, “but, why is it that we also have the ability to discern, for example, what’s going on inside atoms or inside black holes? These are completely outside the domain of everyday experience,” and so “not at all necessary for good Darwinian survival.” If natural selection doesn’t explain human intelligence, then Harris can’t invoke natural selection as a way of eliminating Divine Intelligence.

We may now move on to your comments about morality and evolution. You believe that I have conflated two senses of good, the “moral” and the “evolutionarily beneficial,” and hence make the mistake of saying that since rape proved beneficial according to evolution (a point Harris is forced to admit), then he must likewise admit that, according to evolution, rape is good.

But I am not the one conflating morality with “possessing [evolutionary] utility.” Darwin himself did it in his Descent of Man, a book that I highly recommend for anyone confused about the moral implications of evolutionary theory. In it, Darwin makes clear that evolutionary utility is the origin of all the diverse manifestations of moralities. The different moralties are not wrong or right, but like the diversity of finch beaks or coloration, the result of finding different traits beneficial under diverse conditions for diverse peoples. Thus, when someone in a particular society says “this is morally right,” then, according to Darwin, he is merely telling you something about that tribe’s particular evolutionary history, not about some distinct mode of objective “moral” reasoning or reality that exists independently of evolution.  (Darwin tries to make an exception for Englishman, who have been gifted by evolution with highly developed senses of “sympathy,” but his attempt to provide an exception only proves the rule!)

Indeed, rape is a real problem for Darwinists precisely because it immediately and obviously contributes to the survival of the perpetrator’s genes, and hence presents a big evolutionary payoff. And if you think that rape is condemned by all societies, then you haven’t read enough history or anthropology. It is all too often condemned only in regard to certain people under certain conditions, and condoned everywhere else.

Finally, you say that I have made an entirely elementary error in regard to natural selection by arguing that “the desire to rape, according to neo-Darwinism, is simply a randomly-derived genetic trait.” Against this, you say that natural selection is “the polar opposite of randomness.” I think you mean by this that traits aren’t selected randomly (like numbers out of a hat), but according to some particular immediate benefit to the organism.

I believe you are confusing two things: the derivation of a genetic trait and the selection of a trait. According to neo-Darwinism, the ultimate derivation is random, i.e., the random variations in the DNA (such as point mutations, duplications, or inversions of the genetic “text”) provide the new genetic “raw material” that may or may not be beneficial. Selection itself isn’t random, but (for the most part) it occurs because some randomly-derived trait proves to be beneficial (or at least not harmful).