Background #

So, I recently read a few books by Lawrence Kelemen, like Permission to Believe, which presents rational approaches to God’s existence, and Permission to Receive, which tackles rational approaches to the Torah’s divine origin. Kelemen provides rational arguments in these books, and some of them are heavily rooted in advanced science. But I’m not quite convinced, and here’s why.

Who is Lawrence Kelemen? #

In these books Kelemen talks about some pretty advanced philosophical and, more surprisingly, physics concepts. You’d expect someone who delves into physics in such detail to have some background in the field, right? Well, the first sign that maybe he knows less than he lets on is that his explanations are too complex and in-depth. Think about it: a smart physics communicator, like Richard Feynman, can express advanced physics concepts in very simple terms. The less you truly know a topic, the harder it is to explain to others, and you might need to resort to fancy words to confuse rather than educate.

Now, let’s do a quick investigation: Who is this Lawrence Kelemen guy? A quick Google search shows that there’s no Wikipedia page on him, no LinkedIn page, and nothing that really talks about his background, specifically before the 90s when he published these books. What I did find was that he got an undergraduate degree at UCLA and did graduate studies at Harvard. But I couldn’t figure out what he studied, what form of degree they were, or whether he finished his degree at Harvard. Furthermore, his next gigs were being a downhill skiing instructor and a news director and anchorman at a radio station, so I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that his studies were not astrophysics or anything else especially relevant to his books. I’m not saying that a degree or your professions are necessary for providing sound, logical arguments. I am, however, saying that there’s no ‘ethos’ in his writing, and that all his scientific claims (not logical/rational claims) should be provided with ample evidence.


Fallacy Detective: Ad Hominem

The ad hominem fallacy distracts from logical discourse by attacking an individual's character instead of engaging with their arguments. Such a tactic might win debates but fails to advance understanding. While I highlight Kelemen's educational background, it's crucial to understand that this is not to dismiss his arguments outright, but to emphasize the need for rigorous scrutiny of the evidence and logic he presents.


Who am I? #

First things first, I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in this field, which is why I’ll provide ample evidence for any controversial scientific claims I make (unlike Kelemen, who primarily cites handpicked scientists with minority opinions). That being said, I do have some background knowledge, as I’ve been awarded an undergraduate physics degree (BS) from UCI with the highest honors. Coincidentally, I also obtained a Computer Science degree (BS) at the same time, though that’s less relevant. Currently, I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and I recently had the opportunity to coauthor a paper with Turing Award winner Robert Tarjan, which won the best paper award in the WADS conference.


Fallacy Detective: Appeal to Authority

An appeal to authority fallacy occurs when someone implies that an argument is correct simply because of the presenters' expertise. As stated before, one should scrutinize any presented argument rigorously, especially when it comes to such an important topic as this. Scrutinize my arguments rigorously! Just as Kelemen is fallible, so am I.


Permission to Deceive #

Now, on to my complete deconstruction of the first book by Kelemen, Permission to Believe.

Introduction #

Some people will read this book, be unable to refute its arguments, and still retain their atheism. We are complicated creatures, driven not only by intellect, but by emotion, psyche, body, and spirit. Because we react not only to thoughts but to feelings and desires, we ultimately believe whatever we like to believe. We believe what makes us happy. Someone who is happy with a non-religious lifestyle, who feels threatened by the possibility of God’s existence, will be unmoved by everything that follows.1

Right from the start of his book, Kelemen seems to paint those who disagree with his argument as the following:

  • Unable to refute his arguments
  • Driven by emotion
  • Feeling threatened by the possibility of God’s existence

I will present another form of person who disagrees with his book, myself, someone able to refute some of his arguments, driven by reason, and entirely unfazed by the possibility of God’s existence. I will not act like anyone who disagrees with me is driven by emotion, was unable to find any flaws in my logic, or is threatened in any way. I am not flawless and neither are my arguments. Please feel free to respond by contacting me or by posting in the comment section below.


Fallacy Detective: False Dilemma

The false dilemma fallacy narrows the world down to two choices, ignoring the spectrum of possibilities. By framing atheists as either emotionally driven or intellectually hindered, Kelemen creates a false binary. This viewpoint disregards the complex, multifaceted nature of belief and non-belief, forcing an overly simplistic either/or scenario on a much more complex issue.


Fallacy Detective: Appeal to Emotion

The appeal to emotion fallacy targets the heart, not the head. It uses emotional manipulation rather than logical reasoning. By suggesting that atheists retain their beliefs out of comfort or fear, Kelemen engages in this fallacy. He shifts the focus from rational debate to emotional reactions, which clouds the logical assessment of his arguments.


First, many people would believe in God tomorrow if only their intellects would allow them. … Yet the admirably high value our society places on reason, combined with the unfortunately widespread misconception that belief in God is necessarily irrational, squelches their potential spirituality. These individuals should be permitted to examine the case for God.2

In this passage, Kelemen asserts (without evidence) that many people would believe in God if only they could justify for themselves that it is not irrational. I happen to anecdotally agree with Kelemen that there are many people in this camp, but I want to emphasize the without evidence aspect, as you’ll see many more assertions made in this book where some evidence would be greatly appreciated. As I mentioned before, someone with no ethos (and even someone with lots of ethos) should put extra care into justifying and supporting their empirical claims (as opposed to a priori claims which don’t necessarily require evidence).


Fallacy Detective: Straw Man

In the straw man fallacy, one builds a simplified, easily refutable version of an opposing argument, then attacks this weaker version rather than addressing the real argument. Kelemen does this by implying that atheists are emotionally driven and unable to intellectually challenge his views. This misrepresentation does not accurately reflect the diverse reasons people might have for their atheism, thus undermining his argument's credibility.


Chapters One and Two #

In these two chapters, Kelemen argues that atheism (as opposed to agnosticism) is irrational, and that any universal system of ethics necessitates a form of higher power (above humans). I agree with the main conclusions of both arguments, so I will not do an in-depth analysis of either. Instead, here are a few highlights:

Chapter One: Atheism is Irrational #


Definition: Atheism

In discussing atheism, it's crucial to distinguish between 'agnostic atheism' (lack of belief in deities without claiming certain knowledge) and 'gnostic atheism' (certainty that deities do not exist). The term 'atheism' is often used to describe either term interchangeably, despite these terms representing significantly different positions. When discussing beliefs, it's advisable to clarify these distinctions or inquire about an individual's specific stance to avoid misunderstandings. Kelemen argues that gnostic atheism is irrational, entirely ignoring agnostic atheism.


As an agnostic myself, who switched from labeling myself as an ‘atheist’ to ‘agnostic’ the moment I became familiar with the latter term, I agree that it is fundamentally irrational to believe with certainty that there is no higher power (e.g., God). Incidentally, ‘skeptic’ is the most accurate label to describe my views, but ‘agnostic’ still holds on the topic of God.

[It] is impossible to be rational and know with certainty that God does not exist, just as it is impossible to be rational and know that any person, object, or force does not exist.3

This is entirely true, but I would caution readers against viewing ‘atheists’ as entirely unreasonable. Imagine I told you the following:

On April 23rd, 2023, an alien species called ‘Koblukti’ went to Chicago, kidnapped all the children with blue eyes between the ages of 9 to 12 (except those of Malaysian descent) and asked them to do 8 jumping jacks while speaking in Swahili. The children did these tasks perfectly. Then, they put them in the magical pink pool called ‘Kaluga-muga’ where they forgot everything that had happened to them and were teleported them back in time and space to the moment they were kidnapped. Nobody noticed. Oh, also they killed the whole population of Houston and then resurrected them by putting them in ‘Kaluga-muga’.

Now, I present three possible stances you can have regarding my claim. The first, you can be a believer, and believe it with certainty. The second, you can be agnostic, and state that you are unsure. Finally, you can be a disbeliever, and be certain that this did not happen. Technically, it is irrational to be a disbeliever, since there is no way of verifying that this did not occur, assuming the Koblukti covered their tracks well enough. Technically, it is even irrational for me to be a disbeliever, despite the fact I just made this up.


Note: Burden of Proof

In discussing the burden of proof, it's important to understand that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The Koblukti story, being highly extraordinary, demands substantial proof. In the absence of such proof, disbelief is not only rational but the default position. Kelemen's argument about the irrationality of atheism fails to acknowledge that the assertion of a deity's existence may be perceived as an extraordinary claim, thus placing the burden of proof on those who claim such existence. Atheism, in many cases, is simply a position of skepticism regarding such extraordinary claims without sufficient evidence.


While I agree with Kelemen’s argument that being an atheist is irrational, it’s important to recognize that mocking an atheist for being irrational is logically equivalent (with the evidence presented thus far) to mocking a Koblukti-disbeliever.

Knowing with certainty that something does not exist requires first being aware of all things that do exist. This would mean simultaneously examining every cubic centimeter of the universe for the objects or forces in question. Because we cannot monitor every corner of the universe, we cannot reasonable declare the non-existence of anything—including God.3

This point isn’t really necessary for Kelemen’s argument, but it is still incorrect so I’ll address it. It is not possible to assert that anything does not exist, just as it is impossible to assert that there is nothing that you do not know. Even God could not assert this (depending on how They are defined). However, the biblical God is said to be in all places at all times. By that logic, if you could examine even a single cubic centimeter of the universe and assert that God is not there (which again, you can’t), you would be able to assert that the biblical God does not exist as described.

Chapter Two: The Moral Approach to God’s Existence #

In this chapter, Kelemen argues that universal ethics (which Kelemen again asserts without evidence that “most people believe”), is only possible with a “supernatural moral arbiter” (a God). I largely agree with this argument, so again it is uninteresting for me. I think that a shared, cultural morality is useful for any society to thrive, which is why it is instilled in us from a young age and may even be instilled in us genetically (I am not an expert in that field).

Some people believe that morality is an individual, virtually aesthetic preference; that there are no universal rights or wrongs; and that murder is not absolutely evil.4

While I might not use quite the same words, that’s me! Is murder ‘absolutely’ evil? First, let’s see how Kelemen defines ‘murder’:

slaughtering guiltless, non-threatening human beings in any country at any period in history5

Imagine a variation of the trolley problem, where a train is about to hit a bus filled with a million kids, each kid would have grown up to develop a new cure for cancer, solve world hunger, make peace in the Middle East, etc., etc. On the other track, there is an innocent old woman who is suffering from a terminal illness, is in immense pain, and will unfortunately die regardless in a few hours from her illness. She is yelling, begging you to direct the train towards her. Would it be evil to move the train to the second track to slaughter this guiltless, non-threatening human being? Perhaps instead of the old woman, it was you on the second track, and you had the power to change the direction of the train. Would it be evil for you to command the train to kill yourself instead of the children?

I think it is very easy to come up with examples where I personally would not consider murdering someone else as ‘evil’. Perhaps I would not have the heart to do it myself, but I would not necessarily call that decision ‘evil’.

I hope to include a future blog post with more details as to why I think that there are no clear (non-tautological) moral absolutes. Of course it is possible that there is a supernatural arbiter, and that there really are these moral absolutes, but I argue that believing those exist is, well, a belief, and that moral absolutes themselves are supernatural. If you believe in (supernatural) moral absolutes, then it makes sense to believe in a supernatural arbiter, making this argument circular.

Chapter Three: The Cosmological Approach to God’s Existence #

Here is where I believe Kelemen goes a bit off the rails with science. He gives a brief history lesson, leading to him stating that there were three possible descriptions for the universe. Let me summarize them:

  1. The static universe, where the universe is neither expanding nor contracting. This is indeed, as Kelemen states, what Einstein initially (wrongly) believed. Kelemen asserts:

    Such a universe (called static) could have been created by God at some point in history, but it also could have existed forever without God. 6

  2. The ‘cosmic balloon’ universe, where the universe has a series of expanding and contracting. In this model, the universe is expanding, but that expansion is slowing down, until it eventually reverses and collapses in on itself. This model is known as the cyclic / oscillating model. Kelemen asserts:

    Such a universe (called oscillating) could also have existed forever without God.7

  3. The ‘cosmic balloon that never implodes’ universe, where the universe continues expanding indefinitely. In this model, the universe is expanding, and that rate of expansion is speeding up (accelerating) forever. Variations of this model are by far the most commonly accepted theories within the scientific community today, due to observations that show that farther galaxies are moving away from us faster than closer galaxies, implying that indeed the expansion is speeding up. Kelemen states:

    Such a universe (called open) could never bring itself back to life.8

This summary does not need several fancy diagrams and fancy pages of fluff to state. I will say, however, that it is rather lacking, and there are several other models that were known at the time of Kelemen’s writing of the book, and were certainly known during the past few decades, giving Kelemen plenty of time to update his book. While there are many, there are two I want to highlight:

  1. The second (cyclical) model, where the universe’s expansion is slowing down, has a sister model that Kelemen conveniently forgot to mention. The event in this model where the universe eventually collapses on itself is known as the Big Crunch. While certainly some people theorized that it would rebound, there were many others who viewed it as a one-and-done deal. After it collapses, that’s it. Under this model, the universe would also never be able to bring itself back to life, using Kelemen’s words.

  2. There is also an entire class of models that state that our universe is but one of many. There is tons of variation between these models, but they are all collectively called multiverse models. These models agree with the fact that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, so they can be seen as sub-models of the ‘cosmic balloon that never implodes’. These models today lack supporting evidence or even any scientific way of obtaining such evidence, making them arguably more philosophical than scientific. However, it would be naive to discredit them solely based off of this fact, since also much of Einstein’s claims were unverifiable when he originally stated them (making them ‘philosophical’ claims at the time), and have later been verified as our ability to test them grew. While it is hard to put an exact number on how popular such multiverse models are, I can tell you from personal experience that they are not fringe, with a recent survey showing that around a quarter of scientists believe similar models (namely, the Many-worlds interpretation which also necessitates multiple universes). I am skipping many nuances since they are frankly unimportant, but many of these models are cyclical in the same sense that they keep themselves going indefinitely.


Resource: Further Reading on Cosmological Models

For those interested in delving deeper into the various cosmological models and their history, this resource offers detailed insights and explanations.


The open model generates an uncomfortable question: Why would a dot containing all matter and energy—a dot that sat quietly for an eternity—suddenly explode? The Law of Inertia insists that objects at rest should remain at rest unless acted upon by an external force. Since all matter and energy would be contained within this dot, there could be nothing outside the dot to get things going—nothing natural, at least. What force could have ignited the initial explosion?

And even if one were tempted to answer that the dot was never stable—that it popped into existence in its unstable form and immediately exploded—one would still have to explain how anything could pop into existence. The Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy dictates that the total matter and energy in the universe cannot increase or decrease. How can one begin to suggest the instantaneous, ex-nihilo creation of the universe without slipping into theological discourse? The third model seems to assume a supernatural Creator. 8

The astute reader should have one burning thought in the back of their heads: God of the gaps! This is a slightly more sophisticated attempt of the age-old logical fallacy. Let’s unpack each point:

A Dot that Sat Quietly #

Kelemen describes the Big Bang as a dot that sat quietly for an eternity before one day deciding to ‘explode’. The dot Kelemen refers to is the ‘singularity’, a theory that the whole universe could be described as an infinitesimally small point. There are several problems with this description. First, physics is not ashamed to say that it does not know what happened in the very early universe (\(<10^{-43}\) seconds)—the laws of physics we have today are incomplete and cannot describe this early universe. One of the great strengths of science is that it does not make up answers to questions that it does not know the answer to. Despite this, many scientists have predictions for what happened before the Big Bang, and some of them do think there was a singularity. However I am not aware of a single scientist who thinks that it was static for a long period of time (an ‘eternity’) before suddenly changing. Furthermore, I do not know of a single contemporary scientist in this field who would refer to this event as an ‘explosion’, since there was no explosion that occurred, there was not even a center to this event. Space expanded at all places simultaneously, an expansion that persists (to a lesser extent) to this day. Feel free to read more about the expansion of the universe here. You may consider these pedantic points, but I think Kelemen is intentionally painting an inaccurate and illogical picture of the Big Bang in order to make it seem less serious. This highlights potential misunderstandings or oversimplifications in Kelemen’s portrayal of cosmological theories.

The Law of Inertia #

Kelemen states: The Law of Inertia insists that objects at rest should remain at rest unless acted upon by an external force. This is a very simplistic and outdated view of physics! The law of inertia is applicable in classical mechanics (a field of physics conceived in the 1600s by Newton), classical mechanics only applies in large and slow-moving systems. Classical mechanics entirely breaks down on small scales (the laws, like the law of inertia, no longer hold!). Classical mechanics (and by extension the law of inertia) is therefore not remotely applicable when understanding the very early universe, which as Kelemen states was tiny (a ‘dot’).

Modern physics fields

Kelemen uses the law of inertia to state: there could be nothing outside the dot to get things going. A few things: first, I covered that there are many other contemporary models that do not have this issue. Second, ‘nothing’ in the cosmological context may not think what laypeople (like Kelemen) may intuitively think. In fact, as will be elaborated on below, there are events called quantum fluctuations that occur in the vacuum of space constantly, and may have occurred in the very early universe. Some suspect they may have been the origin of the Big Bang (although again, science isn’t yet at a state where it can make such claims). Third, we simply do not know what occurred in the very early universe (\(<10^{-43}\) seconds), so while we are confident that the universe was once very small, we do not know if it was ever infinitesimally small (a ‘dot’), perhaps something entirely different occurred beforehand. Fourth, some serious scientists suggest that concepts of causality and time may have been meaningless if time itself began with the Big Bang. This is not a very satisfying answer, but it is nevertheless a possible one (I am simplifying it here).


Definition: Quantum Fluctuations

Quantum fluctuations refer to the temporary change in energy in a point in space, as allowed by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This phenomenon, fundamental in quantum mechanics, challenges the classical view of a static, unchanging vacuum, suggesting that 'nothing' can indeed have properties and activity.


This statement is based on the assumption that for the Big Bang to occur there must be an external cause. While this may or may not be the case, there are certainly many possible explanations for the Big Bang without this restriction. More details are provided below.

Kelemen states: the law of inertia means that nothing could have created this initial dot that subsequently exploded, in other words, the law of inertia means that something cannot be created from nothing.

Perhaps if Kelemen studied physics himself he would be able to immediately see the flaws in his reasoning. As weird as it seems, something is created from nothing all the time in our world. The immediate example that comes to mind is quantum fluctuations (from the 40s). I’ll try to keep this simple since this gets complicated fast.

  • Quantum fluctuations: Several properties of subatomic particles, such as their position, momentum, energy, electric charge, etc., are fundamentally governed by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. What this means is that each of these properties has a specific associated uncertainty with them. This uncertainty means that the actual properties themselves can constantly fluctuate (in tiny amounts). And here is where things get wild–if the amount of energy in a vacuum (a place with no particles) suddenly increases, what does that really mean? It means that energy can be created (and lost) from nothing.

Does this sound like science-fiction? I agree–but not only is there a mountain of evidence to support quantum fluctuations, modern physics itself would break down without it. This is an almost universally accepted phenomenon. It was first experimentally observed in 1947, but was confirmed again and again, even in 2020 from researchers at LIGO, see this article. 9

The Law of Conversation of Matter and Energy #

Kelemen states: the law of conservation of matter and energy dictates that the total matter and energy in the universe cannot increase or decrease. How can one begin to suggest the instantaneous, ex-nihilo creation of the universe without slipping into theological discourse?

As stated before, Kelemen clings to a specific simplistic interpretation of the origin of the universe, one where the Big Bang originated from nowhere instantaneously, which conveniently backs up his theological arguments. As described before, there are many interpretations that describe the origin of the Big Bang, a vast majority do not involve it occurring from nothing. Kelemen seems to be confusing scientists who say ‘we don’t know what occurred before’ with ‘we know that there was nothing before’. The truth is that science is simply not at a point where it can answer this question. As disappointing as it may be, there is no guarantee that science will ever be able to provide a satisfying answer. But that does not mean that we should make up answers to fill in the gaps.


Tip: Understanding Scientific Laws

When discussing cosmology, it's important to remember that scientific laws, like those of inertia and conservation, are not immutable truths but models that describe observations under specific conditions. In the realm of the very early universe, these laws might not apply as we understand them in our observable universe.

Conclusion #

For the rest of this chapter, Kelemen provides a brief summary which describes how scientists largely dismissed the ‘static’ and ‘oscillating’ models of the universe, and instead accepted the ‘open’ model. This is true for the most part, scientists have shown that not only is the universe is expanding, the expansion is accelerating, which effectively eliminates the ‘static’ and ‘oscillating’ models of the universe. The idea that the open model is the only model that fits these observations is false, as described above, and furthermore the idea that even if the open model were true that it necessitates a supernatural creator is also false.

There are, of course, mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists who choose not to believe in God today. For a variety of reasons, they choose instead to trust that new laws will be discovered or that new evidence will appear and overturn the current model of an open, created universe. 10

As he did earlier in this book, Kelemen paints individuals who disagree with his conclusions in a simplistic view. He depicts them as defeated individuals that deny all the evidence and instead cling to a belief that contradicts current evidence with the hope that future evidence will support it. Does this sound like any particular group? A particular group that believes that the universe is several thousand years old, that entirely denies evolution, and entirely dismisses all evidence that contradicts their beliefs? It seems like Kelemen is projecting.

Personal jab aside, let me describe a typical physicist who does not fit this description—me. I do not require new laws or new physics to be discovered to overturn the model of an open universe, for the simple reason that I do not have any desire to overturn the ‘open’ model of the universe (as Kelemen calls it). That’s the beauty about science—unlike religion, it has no agenda, or something that it is trying to prove. It is simply trying to describe the universe as best it can. As the book accurately describes, there is tons of evidence to support the claim that the universe’s expansion is accelerating. Great! I have no problem with this fact. What I disagree with is that this fact necessitates a supernatural creator. Then what ‘created’ the universe? My simple answer would be: I don’t know; I don’t even know whether the universe was created.


Highlight: Embracing Scientific Uncertainty

One of the most important aspects of scientific inquiry is the willingness to say 'I don't know.' This openness to uncertainty drives the pursuit of new knowledge and guards against the complacency of assumed answers.

Yes, I am openly admitting to not having an answer to a question that many religious people have an answer to. Some religious people may understandably state that I am simply refusing to accept the answer that was in front of me the whole time—a supernatural creator. I simply view this as an argument from ignorance. Consider the following:

Let’s say that the price of gold tanked in the stock market today. Your friend confidently explains to you that the price of gold tanked because an alien species called ‘Koblukti’ is subconsciously influencing the minds of all the stock traders. You tell your friend: I’m not sure that’s true. Your friend asks: so, how do you explain the price of gold tanking? You respond: I don’t know.

All joking aside, we all know people who talk confidently about things that they are not sure about. Many of us have probably done this ourselves in our personal lives. Talking with confidence when you aren’t sure is not a sign of strength. Ironically, it takes true self confidence to have the humility to say that you don’t know. Saying that you don’t know is not proof that the other argument is right. I state that I do not know how the universe originated out of a position of strength.


I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.


Chapter Four: The Teleological Approach to God’s Existence #

In this chapter, Kelemen argues that the universe is too ordered to have been created entirely by random processes. He argues that evolution is unable to explain how life began, and further how one species could evolve into another. I agree that the universe is highly ordered, the fact that we are able to describe the universe to a high degree of accuracy using science is a testament to that. I also agree that evolution is unable to explain how life began, since that is not the role of evolution, yet of a different field of biology called abiogenesis (interesting Kelemen seemed to miss this point in all his research). Pedantics aside, it is true that abiogenesis is far from a settled scientific field, and still has several leading hypotheses, each with varying degrees of evidence. Evolution, on the other hand, is a very well established scientific theory, with a mountain of evidence to support it. I will go over evidence that species evolve into other species through evolution.

I first discuss two more pedantic points, and then deconstruct Kelemen’s main argument in the Evolution section.

Man’s Inability to Replicate Nature #

As stated before, Kelemen starts showing many examples of how sophisticated and orderly nature appears to be, which I largely agree with. One minor point I would like to dispute, however, is when Kelemen argues for analogy’s sake how far humankind is from replicating something as complex as nature. He states:

Man has never succeeded in building a computer that can match DNA’s data-storage and reproductive capabilities. Neither has he ever constructed a television camera that can mimic the human eye’s brightness range, focal flexibility, and image-processing abilities. Nor has he yet assembled a communications network with as many specific connections as a single human brain. The human body dwarfs in complexity any object man has ever designed. 11

All of what he states is indeed true today. The caveman also has never succeeded in transporting an object from earth to space. Does that mean that it will never be able to? Throughout history, humankind as been able to achieve more and more complex feats that were previously thought to be impossible. Specifically in recent history we have seen a huge increase in the rate of technological advancement. Why stop at such an arbitrary snapshot in time that is the writing of this book, when the realm of what humankind is able to accomplish is so rapidly expanding?


Fallacy Detective: Argument from Ignorance

In this instance, Kelemen's argument assumes that the current limitations of human technology in replicating natural systems like the brain or eye are evidence of their unmatched complexity. However, this is an argument from ignorance; it confuses the absence of proof (technological equivalents) with proof of absence (the impossibility of such technology). The potential of human ingenuity cannot be underestimated based on current technological states.


To further show how utterly silly this argument is, you can make an equivalent argument in the opposite direction:

Nature has never succeeded in creating an object that can escape the earth’s gravitational pull at will. Neither has she ever constructed a device that can process and recall information as quickly as a modern computer can. Nor has she erected structures both as thin and as tall as skyscrapers. Nor has she yet assembled a communications network as immediate and far reaching as the internet, allowing the transfer of video, audio, and text accurately across the globe in an instant.


Fallacy Detective: False Analogy

A false analogy fallacy occurs when there's an improper comparison between dissimilar phenomena. Arguing that nature hasn't engineered feats like human technology is as illogical as saying technology can't rival natural complexity. Both views neglect the fundamental differences in scale, timeframe, and driving mechanism between nature's evolutionary processes and human innovation, making the analogy inherently flawed.


Nature accomplished so much, but in a staggeringly large amount of time (billions of years). Consider how much humankind has advanced in the past 100 years, eight orders of magnitude less time. Note that I agree with Kelemen’s point that nature is incredibly complex, and I even agree that it is unlikely that humankind will ever fully be able to replicate it, especially at such a large scale. However, I just found this part of Kelemen’s argument to be so silly as to necessitate a response.

Unusual Equilibria in Earth #

Sorry, just one more example. In this example, Kelemen argues that the earth is in a very delicate equilibrium, and that if any of the following were to change, life would not be possible.

Were the Earth’s average air temperature a mere ten degrees higher, surface rocks would release higher levels of CO2, stimulating a runaway greenhouse effect that would boil away the oceans and destroy all life. Conversely, were the Earth’s average air temperature ten degrees cooler, glacial icing would increase at the polar caps, raising the percentage of solar heat reflected back into space and setting off a lethal, global glaciation. 12

Anyone who has passed a public middle school, at least in the United States, would be able to see some glaring flaws with this argument. First, let’s do a quick look into the average temperature on Earth. Note that obtaining historical data for average air temperature is much harder than for average surface temperature. However, they are very closely related13, so I will use the latter as a proxy for the former. Here is a graph of the Geologic temperature record:

Temperature History

Note that this graph has a logarithmic \(x\) axis.

It is important to note that throughout this whole 500 million year period, there was abundant life on earth—with temperatures between 14 degrees Celsius warmer than current temperatures, to 6 degrees colder (or around 25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer to almost 11 Fahrenheit degrees colder). Furthermore, when the earth was created it was likely hundreds of degrees Celsius warmer than it is today, yet it still managed to cool off. Regarding higher levels of \(\text{CO}_2\), it is well established that \(\text{CO}_2\) levels were much higher in the early Earth’s atmosphere, only reducing when plants converted a majority of it into oxygen. Learn more about Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.


Fact Check: Earth's Temperature History

Geological records show that Earth's climate has been both significantly warmer and cooler than today, with life persisting through these changes. This contradicts his assertion of a narrow temperature range being vital for life.


Kelemen’s argument about how lucky life is that the planet happens to have these exactly perfect conditions, specifically temperature and \(\text{CO}_2\) levels, is simply blind to the history of this planet. There are stabilizing forces that have historically returned temperature and \(\text{CO}_2\) levels to an equilibrium, along many other values. Furthermore, this argument and many others presented by Kelemen show how the universe seems especially conducive to life as we know it. Who says that if the universe were different, entirely different forms of life would not have formed? In any case, I am not entirely rejecting the notion that some changes to values in the universe may have resulted in an entirely different universe—my aim in this section was more to emphasize how Kelemen repeatedly talks about science with confidence, despite proving time and time again to be ignorant of the field.

Evolution #

Kelemen argues that the theory of evolution has two glaring holes that are unsupported by evidence. Furthermore, not only are they unsupported by evidence, but all existing evidence seems to suspiciously either contradict them or make them seem exceedingly unlikely to the extent that they can be dismissed. These two holes are the origin of life (in the field of abiogenesis), and ‘missing links’ from the fossil record. I will address both of these points.

From the start, something immediately telling is that Kelemen uses the term ‘missing links’ extensively in this book when talking about evolution. This is frankly not a term used by scientists. From the Wikipedia page on Transitional fossils:

The term “missing link” has been used extensively in popular writings on human evolution to refer to a perceived gap in the hominid evolutionary record. It is most commonly used to refer to any new transitional fossil finds. Scientists, however, do not use the term, as it refers to a pre-evolutionary view of nature.

Why is this important? Because if one views evolution as a linear progression from one species to another, you may indeed expect different results than what is obtained from the fossil record. This, however, is an archaic understanding of evolution. Evolution is not a linear progression—it more closely resembles a tree. Instead of ‘missing links’, Kelemen should have been searching for most recent common ancestors.

Non-triviality of the Fossil Record #

A key and preliminary point to understand in general is that the universe is under no obligation to ensure that all events of the past are known or discoverable by us. Try as we might, we may never know exactly how many times George Washington farted in his life. A fart might linger for several seconds or even minutes, but no trace is left under hundreds of years. Like farts, an overwhelming majority of living beings leave no trace of their bodies after they die.

Decay Stage Time
Body decays several weeks to several years14
Skeleton decays 20 years to several hundred years14
Mummy decays several thousand to tens of thousands of years15

Most of us leave no trace after at most several hundred years, even when we are buried in a coffin. In the most extreme cases, it would take us at most several tens of thousands of years to leave no trace when we are deliberately mummified in order to preserve our bodies. By the most pessimistic estimates, modern humans appeared over a hundred thousand years ago.16 An overwhelming majority of them who decayed normally are entirely lost to time. The most recent (non-bird) dinosaurs appeared well over 50 million years ago.17 It is a surprise that anything at all remains of them.

But, of course, there is a way for an animal’s remains to preserve themselves much, much further—winning the geological lottery. It must die in a place where it won’t be eaten, scavenged, nor rot away quickly. Then it must get itself trapped in amber, or fall into a tar pit under just the right conditions, or perhaps get rapidly buried under sediment—sediment which is fine-grained enough to preserve details, before minerals seep in. Or perhaps you get lucky enough to die in the exact right place near a volcanic eruption to get trapped in by ash without being burned. These are all exceedingly rare events; it’s a wonder that we have any fossils at all.

It is not surprising that it is estimated that the number of species that are known through fossils is far less than 1% of all the species that ever existed.18

Don’t be disheartened, the little amount of fossils we did find are very revealing, and strongly support evolution. However, don’t expect to find every single species that ever existed to get a complete picture of the whole history of evolution. Instead, tailor your expectations to what is unfortunately our reality—that, like farts, a majority of species that you may be searching for might have left no trace at all.

Scientific Consensus on Evolution #

As stated before, Kelemen states that ‘missing links’ are a glaring hole in the theory of evolution. He quotes three scholars in related fields who spread varying degrees of doubt into how strongly the fossil record supports evolution, in statements from 1954‒1985. Kelemen assets that ‘modern scholars’ agree with these statements. There are tons of studies and ample evidence to the contrary, a short summary can be found here, but they can all be summed up from a single Pew research study. In 2009, Pew reached out to 2,553 scientists (and 2,001 members of the public) questions relating to, among other things, their view of evolution. After randomizing questions they reached the following key results:

Humans and other living things have… Public Scientists
Evolved over time… 61% 97%
    Due to natural processes 32% 87%
    Guided by supreme being 22% 8%
Existed in their present form since the beginning of time 31% 2%

Data for this table was taken from this Pew research study, see the ‘Complete Report PDF’ provided on the webpage for more detailed information.

The results are clear—at least in 2009, scientists almost unanimously agreed with evolution, specifically that current evidence supports the fact that animals evolved over time, whether by natural processes or by a supreme being. All these scientists would disagree with Kelemen’s ‘modern scholars’. And the evidence has only strengthened since then. I have looked for more historical studies of scientists’ views on evolution, specifically studies that would have been known to Kelemen while writing this book (published from 1990‒1991) with no luck. However, one fact is known—Kelemen’s argument has not aged well.

Transitional Fossils & Evidence for Most Recent Common Ancestors #

After establishing that Kelemen’s argument—primarily built from several ‘expert’ opinions—is entirely rejected by the modern ‘expert’ scientific community, let’s tackle the more interesting question that Kelemen seems to look over—why do scientists agree with evolution?

Footnotes #

  1. Permission to Believe page 11 

  2. Permission to Believe page 12 

  3. Permission to Believe page 16  2

  4. Permission to Believe page 28 

  5. Permission to Believe page 21 

  6. Permission to Believe page 34 

  7. Permission to Believe page 35 

  8. Permission to Believe page 36  2

  9. The full article can be found here: Quantum correlations between light and the kilogram-mass mirrors of LIGO 

  10. Permission to Believe page 42 

  11. Permission to Believe page 50 

  12. Permission to Believe page 51 

  13. Several studies have shown that the average air temperature is very closely related to the average surface temperature, see this study from 2015, for example. 

  14. Skeletonization  2

  15. It is unclear exactly how long mummies will last, but the longest estimates are several thousand years. I said tens of thousands of years to be safe. See this and this

  16. Modern humans 

  17. Dinosaurs 

  18. A book published in 2007 called Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters