Post #18 – The Parable of the Desert and the Mobile Phone

I’m walking down King Street, a busy shopping street in my neighbourhood. It’s Saturday morning and I’m hungover and tired… and clothes shopping with my girlfriend. Every bloke who has (or had) a partner knows this pain. However, in my haze I spot three young men on the footpath up ahead of me dressed in green t-shirts handing out fliers and greeting people as they walk past. I slowly wake out of my daze as we get closer to these men – I’m curious to see what they’re up to. Also, any excuse to get me out of clothes shopping when I’m hungover is welcome. As they came into focus (my eyesight is shit, so at this stage they’re only about three metres away) I could see that these men were Muslim (it was emblazoned on their t-shirts) and were answering questions and educating people about their faith. As I’ve stated before, I’m not the biggest fan of religion – but I really respect people who are willing to engage others about their faith and at least start a dialogue. We may never agree on certain things, but at least at some level we can relate and try to understand each other.

So ironically the day before I had watched a documentary titled Islam: An Untold Story (which I’ve linked here, I really recommend you watch it) which essentially argues that the Arabs’ were not actually Muslim at the beginning of the Arab Empire, that Mecca isn’t the place where Mohammed was born and that Arab Emperor Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan used the narrative of this trendy new religion ‘Islam’ to unify the tribes and expand the empire – ya know, just like Constantine did with the Christians a few centuries before. So I jumped at the opportunity to ask these guys some questions. I was greeted with a warm and friendly smile by a young gentleman by the name of ‘Ray’, who discussed these historical questions I had about the birth of his religion. I will admit, this man was a lot more well versed in the origins of his religion than I was so the conversation was somewhat limited to what I could fully grasp. Keep in mind though, that I’m supposed to be ‘shopping’ with my girlfriend; so after a few minutes of debate I thanked Ray for his time, we politely finished our conversation and I went on my merry way – but not before I was given a flyer. You haven’t truly met someone peddling their religion until you walk away with a flyer!

Here is what was in the opening page of the flyer, in full:

Imagine you were walking in a desert and found a mobile phone. We know that a phone consists of glass, plastic and metal. Glass comes from sand, plastic from oil and metal extracted from the ground – all these ingredients are found in the desert. Would you believe that the phone formed itself? That the Sun shone, the wind blew, lightning struck, the oil bubbled to the surface and mixed with the sand and metal, and over millions of years the phone came together by random or natural coincidences?

No one would believe such an explanation. A mobile phone is clearly something which was designed and constructed in an organised way, so it would be rational to believe it must have an organiser.

In the same way, when we see the order, precise laws and systems in the universe, is it not rational to believe the universe also has an organiser?

Proteins, the fundamental building blocks of living cells, have a structure that is trillions of times more complex than a mobile phone, making it far more impossible for proteins to have been produced by random natural conditions.

A bit of research has shown me that this parable isn’t unique to modern-day Islam. It appears that Jews also think it’s a great story to recruit the masses to their own version of craziness. It seems that the core aspects of their own specific religions’ were not enough to plagiarise, they had to steal shitty parables too. But what is so wrong with this story of the phone in the desert I hear you ask? What is ‘Ray’ getting at here? Does it not raise a fair and valid point? Well no, and I’m going to tell you three simple reasons why.

1. YOU CANNOT MAKE A PHONE – The basic analogy of the phone in the desert is this: the complex inner workings (and increasingly, outer workings) of a mobile phone must necessitate an intelligent designer or ‘organiser’. It therefore follows that (as is the case with a mobile phone) the complexity of the ‘precise laws and systems in the universe’ must also necessitate an organiser. But this argument falls apart because you can’t personally organise a phone – heck you can’t even assemble a mobile phone. You might be able to reconfigure some aspects of your phone, or fiddle with the coding of the software – but you’re essentially clueless about how your phone works. Want me to prove it? Give me a tiny Phillips head screwdriver and your mobile phone for about 20 minutes and I guarantee you can’t reassemble your previously very expensive and now very broken contraption. The anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd further expand on this rebuttal (but in regards to the analogy of a watch) by arguing that one human could not make a watch (or mobile phone) on their own and therefore a watch does not really have an ‘organiser’. When you think about it, nobody really designs your modern day phone – large teams of people work on the overall design of the product. One group focuses on the software, another on the touch-sensor features, another on the ‘look’ and the shape, and so on. The cell phone was invented in 1973 and was originally no more sophisticated than a brick with a speaker and an aerial. Before that, land-line phones were in use for over 100 years, and before that there was the wire and the telegraph. A perpetual and expansive movement to constantly improve and alter communications between people has led to the marvel that now currently sits in your pocket (or that you’re now possibly using to read this blog). Many small, incremental changes coming from a huge variety of factors have been adopted over a lengthy period of time to design and produce today’s mobile phone. I apologise for making an analogy of my own, but does this not sound a bit like evolution?

2. WHO DESIGNED THE DESIGNER OF THE MOBILE PHONE? – The parable I’m examining uses the word ‘impossible’, but they should really be using the word improbable instead – that would be much more fitting. Granted, our current understanding of us, the world, the universe and everything in it may sound improbable – but the alternative is even more improbable. What the parable of the phone and the desert implies is that there must have been something or someone more complex than the mobile phone in focus here. They must be more complex than the phone, for how else would they be capable of ‘organising’ the mobile phone if they were not? However, to stick with this particular narrative means that you then have to question who organised the organiser of the phone. This line of thinking can continue forever and ever and ever… and ever, but it really doesn’t end up answering anything. However, if you want to look at evolution (or even the Big Bang Theory – and I’m not referring to the television show – the only thing that will teach you is how to keep a straight face for thirty minutes) you’re looking at an explanation that offers a bottom-up approach. This way of understanding the world (free of silly and contradictory parables) provides a scenario where more complexity can arise gradually by building on or combining lesser complexity.

3. PHONES CANNOT EVOLVE & THEY CAN’T GET JIGGY WITH EACH OTHER – Even though I previously made an analogy to the ‘evolution’ of the mobile phone, your phone is not ‘evolving’ in your pocket. The software and the hardware are going out of date as soon as you purchase the damn thing. Nor can it fuck other phones to make cute little phone-babies and self-replicate to create some dystopian future where Apple and Samsung attempt to destroy each other in a nuclear holocaust. In contrast, living organisms are able to reproduce themselves and are also able to become more complex over time. Therefore the comparison between a mobile phone and the universe (I assume that is what the analogy put forth in the pamphlet is inferring) falls flat because this complex inanimate object (the mobile phone) is unable to pass on any reproductive changes. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution provided another explanation for complex artifacts, one where a design (or an organiser) is not necessary. Although Darwin was not referring to the universe, its laws, and everything in it, the general rule he put forth can still be applied in this particular instance.

So there you have it, I’m not even through the second page of this pamphlet and I’ve already killed their argument for god. Aren’t I just grand!? And even if this little parable did prove there was a god, it certainly doesn’t prove the existence of their god – they have a lot more hurdles to jump over before they get to that pinnacle. So the next time ‘Ray’ or some other faith-peddler comes at you with the parable of the mobile phone and the desert, come at them with these three points. However, there’s many other points of conversation you can still have with these individuals – whatever you can do to get you out of clothes shopping with the missus, right?

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