Theologian pwns physicist. But at what cost?

Lawrence Krauss, physicist and amateur philosopher, in his Newsweek article, The Godless Particle,[1] writes “The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.” John Lennox, Oxford mathematician and part-time theologian, accuses Krauss of talking ill-informed nonsense. Let me surprise my friends by saying that Lennox is right from beginning to end in what he says. The sad thing is that Lennox himself does not realise the implications. If he did, he might choose his friends more carefully. In particular, he might distance himself from the “Intelligent Design” movement, which is everything that in his view religion should not be.

Here is what Lennox says:[2]

 Krauss does not seem to realize that his concept of God is one that no intelligent monotheist would accept. His “God” is the soft-target “God of the gaps” of the “I can’t understand it, therefore God did it” variety. As a result, Krauss, like Dawkins and Hawking, regards God as an explanation in competition with scientific explanation. That is as wrong-headed as thinking that an explanation of a Ford car in terms of Henry Ford as inventor and designer competes with an explanation in terms of mechanism and law. God is not a “God of the gaps”,  he is God of the whole show.

Having read both articles, I have to say that Lennox is absolutely right in his critique of Krauss. Scientific discoveries tell us more about how the universe works, with the promise of yet more to come. But this in no way undermines Lennox’s vision of God as “God of the whole show”. On the contrary, from his point of view, our growing understanding of the laws of nature is at the same time growing evidence of the majesty of God’s design. Henry Ford’s production line works, and there are natural explanations for how it works, but it only works because of the way it was set up in the first place. In the same way, according to Lennox , the universe works, and there are natural explanations for how it works. The detection of the Higgs boson helps confirm our understanding of these natural explanations. However, this for Lennox does not detract from God’s glory, but adds to it.

Lennox is part here of a rich and venerable intellectual tradition. It was a 19th century theologian, Henry Drummond, who in as many words rejected the concept of a “God of the gaps”, for much the same reasons as Lennox, and not merely because the gaps were (and are) shrinking. I would trace this line of thought back even further, to the 11th century philosopher and polymath al-Ghazali, who taught that the laws of nature are required to be constant because they reflect the will of God, which is itself perfect and unchanging. And for me, as for many other intelligent atheists, the coherence of the laws of nature is the most nearly compelling of the arguments for the existence of God.

Then why in the name of all that’s holy is Lennox associating himself with the likes of Douglas Axe and the U.K.’s own self-styled Centre for Intelligent Design? Having stated that no intelligent monotheist would argue for a God of the gaps, why is he linking himself to people who by that very criterion must be lacking in intelligence (or monotheism)?

Axe is director of the Biologic Institute, a research organisation operating under the auspices of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, those wonderful people who brought you the Wedge Strategy for the undermining of current scientific explanation in favour of “theistic understanding”. The Biologic Institute itself is dedicated to attacking the entire present-day science of evolutionary biology, in order precisely to look for gaps that the God of the gaps can plug. Douglas Axe is also one of the authors of Science and Human Origins, a Biologic Institute publication. This book is not merely a concerted attack on the scientific arguments for a common origin of humans and [other] apes, but an attempt to reconcile the evidence from molecular biology with the view that all humankind is descended from a single breeding pair who lived 6000 years ago (why would anyone want to suggest that?) Yet Lennox is sharing a platform with Axe this autumn, and doing so at a conference being held under the auspices of the Centre for Intelligent Design.

If there is anything even more inimical to Lennox’s vision of “God of the whole show” than the antics of Axe in trying to generate gaps, it is the doctrine espoused by Norman Nevin, Chairman of the Centre. Nevin is a biblical literalist, who holds that death came into the world as the result of human sin. An intelligent monotheist, as Lennox uses the term, has no business supporting such people. This is not a matter of religious belief or unbelief, but of logic and the acceptance of reality.

To pursue the Ford analogy further, Lennox believes that the car works because it is well designed, Axe believes that it works because there is a miracle-working mechanic inside the gearbox, and Nevin believes that it was sabotaged by the drivers’ grandparents.

At the risk of annoying two Oxford professors at once, I would suggest that Lennox, with his reverence for the works of the Lord, is much closer to Richard Dawkins with his appreciation of the magic of reality, than he is to the gap-seekers and evolution deniers of C4ID and the Discovery Institute. You can have an intelligent Designer, or you can have what now goes by the name of Intelligent Design, or like me you can have neither, but you cannot possibly have both.


[1] Krauss, Lawrence M. “The Godless Particle.” Newsweek 16 July 2012: 5

[2] The Christian Post, August 20, 2012, alsoThe [London] Times

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on August 29, 2012, in Creationism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Paul,

    I do find it strange how you talk about the laws of physics and process of evolution as if they have both been empirically proven.

    The laws of physics have been empirically proven to be correct through numerous repeatable experiments. However, the process of macroevolution has not been empirically proven. Instead, macroevolution has been inferred based on scientist’s interpretation of data.

    Only microevolution of bacteria has been empirically proven by the work of Lenski’s lab. i.e. where a number of gene mutations activated the dormant ability to metabolise citrate. I am not aware of any work that empirically demonstrates macroevolution is possible, and no viable mechanism has been suggested for how macroevolution could occur. Moreover, given the length of time that such an empirical experiment would take, it is not conceivable that macroevolution could ever be empirically demonstrated.

    Therefore, with such an absence of empirical evidence for macroevolution, you are really stretching the truth by mentioning the laws of physics and the process of evolution in the same category. You criticise Lennox for being inconsistent, but you have demonstrated the very same inconsistency that you criticise.

    And by the way, I am not a ‘creationist’ if by that you mean a literal 6-day creation. I am honestly and earnestly seeking answers in science, and am frustrated by the propaganda on both sides of the debate of origins. Regardless of whether evolution is true or not, clouding the debate by blurring distinctions between physical laws and the non-empirically proven science is not dissimilar to the criticisms levelled at ID adherents. I expect better from credible scientists such as yourself.

    Regards,
    Kevin

    • The creationists (and if you’re not one, nonetheless you’ve been beguiled by their shabby pseudophilosophical party trick) define “macroevolution” so that it lies outside the range of direct observation, make up a special rule that says that only direct observation counts as proof, and then crow that by this definition macroevolution hasn’t been proven. Whereas we have as much evidence for macroevolution (see here, for whale evolution alone: http://wp.me/p21T1L-89) as anyone could reasonably require.

      • Paul,

        I must say I am surprised that you accept those studies as categorical scientific proof that the process of evolution can account for the development of all life-forms from an original ancestral cell. I’ve read the article on David Bodenhams’ blog, and I would pose some questions around the studies quoted. Even David quoted the following in his article:

        “Yet the importance of fossil evidence is clear, as evidence based upon purely molecular data is impossible to interpret in regards to important evolutionary modifications.”

        This is a big admission regarding the usefulness of the molecular evidence to back up the theory of evolution, and is something picked up in Stephen Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt. In light of this admission, my questions would be as follows.

        1. If two different sets of molecules/genetic sequences are studied, then would the tree constructed based on the data from one set of molecules may differ significantly from the tree constructed from the other set?

        2. How many different molecules/DNA sequences have they compared for these lineages? If many have been studied, is there a general consensus between the trees, or does the picture become even more complex and muddled?

        3. Why do the authors suppose that a single tree is not produced? Do they suggest convergent evolution could be the reason? If so, then how can you reliably construct any trees using molecular analysis?

        4. If convergent evolution is the key, then why would the fossil evidence be any better at constructing reliable trees? If I understand it correctly, convergent evolution means the independent evolution of characteristics in two different clades (instead of the two different clades inheriting that characteristic from a common ancestor). Therefore, if you use the fossil evidence, how do you draw the line between what was homologous traits inherited from a common ancestor and homologous traits generated independently via convergent evolution?

        5. Finally, what DNA sources were used for the phylogenetic analyses? Was it only from extant species or was it also from fossils (is this possible)?

        Without proper answers to these questions, then of what use is the molecular data?

        Regards,

        Kevin

      • Oops, I thought you were commenting on “No evidence for evolution, says the Reverend http://wp.me/p21T1L-89.” Molecular data generally refer to living species, although (google e.g. neanderthal DNA) we can sometimes get DNA from fairly recent fossils.
        The evidence I cite regarding whale evolution in the link I just gave shows beyond all reasonable doubt that whales are descended from relatives of today’s ruminants, and, despite Genesis, are more recent than the oldest land mammals let alone the oldest land tetrapods.
        For technical details, including the well understood reasons why there is some fuzziness in molecular trees, I refer you to any standard text. Simply put, species diverge, not from a single individual, but from interbreeding populations and so, at the finest scales, for closely spaced events, more than one tree is possible. But you will never get a tree for whales that doesn’t show them as a sister group to artiodactyls.
        Convergent evolution can generally be distinguished from homology by reference to close attention to morphological details, to molecular phylogeny, and to morphological resemblances to other species; thus a whale’s flippers are analogous to those fo a fish, but homologous to the mammalian hand and even has fingers and a thumb buried within it. BTW, the term “homologous” is never applied to the results of convergent evolution, and, contrary to DI claims, the two can be distinguished in four separate ways; degree of detailed similarity, patterns among species known on other evidence to be more or less closely related, the fossil record and, now for the first time, comparison of the DNA sequences linked to specific features.
        Again regarding whales, the molecular data clearly placed whales within the ruminants before the astralagus of walking whales independently led to the same conclusion.
        As you can see, convergent evolution cannot aqccount for homology, and homology can without circularity be distingusiehd from analogy. It is clear from your choice of words that you are not advancing orignalargument but channelling a creationist source and I would really like to know what one as I am genuinely interested in understanding creationist arguments.

  2. Lennox is incredibly disingenuous; his god is very much a god of the gaps, but this “no intelligent monotheist” sits completely at odds with his recent “Gunning for God” book. It’s a non-stop inane disaster of a book – fallacy-laden nonsense. I’ve reviewed it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/B005YZX2IS/ref=mp_s_a_2?pi=SL75&qid=1348773054&sr=8-2 – mine is the one-star “out of ammo” review. Do take a look and see if you agree :-)

    • Indeed. I haven’t read his book, but am happy to accept your account of it. If he thinks that God is necessary for science to work, then his “God of the whole” is nothing more than a God of the gaps, even if the gap in question is the one between past observation and future expectation (didn’t al Ghazali say it a lot better?). And if no “ought from is”, then, by exactly the same logic, no “ought” from “God said so”.

      “Disingenuous” is a strong term, suggesting feigned or voluntarily assumed ignorance; but even if he is totally honest in his confusion, he has no business aiding and abetting the ID crowd, which is what I am taking him to task for here.

  3. “No intelligent theologian” is indeed almost a parody of a “no true Scotsman”. But I feel entitled to take Lennox at his word, as a kind of judo move. He can’t have it both ways. L is correct in saying that Krauss is attacking only a God of the parts. If L rejects such a God in favour of a God of the Whole (equally irrational, as you point out), he has no business lending his name to the scientifically and by his own criteria theologically ignorant activities of the Intellligent Design crowd.

  4. “his concept of God is one that no intelligent monotheist would accept.”

    This is a “No True Scotsman” defense. There are many millions of Christians who do rely on God of the Gaps arguments, although Lennox will probably assert these people aren’t “intelligent”. By any reasonable measure, they are intelligent.

    If Lennox wishes to claim his God is the author behind whatever science discovers, then he is merely making assertions for which no evidence is even possible. While you can’t prove him wrong, there is no compelling reason to accept his claim, hence accepting it is irrational.

    I think your title of “Theologian pwns physicist” is overstated, much like the “New Scientist” headline “Darwin Was Wrong”, and for the same reason.

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