Monthly Archives: August 2012

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

Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. Part II, Naming and Framing

In Part I, I stated that if you equate evolution with Darwin, or, worse, if you describe our knowledge of evolution as “Darwin’s theory”, you are guilty of scientific, logical, historical, and pedagogic errors, and playing into the hands of the Creationists. Here I enlarge on these claims, and make recommendations about how best to describe both our own position, and that of our opponents.

Firstly, the historical. Darwin was well aware that his own achievements were part of a prolonged process (see Rebecca Stott’s outstanding recent book, Darwin’s Ghosts). After all, Alfred Russel Wallace had come up, quite independently, with the concept of natural selection, as perhaps did one or two other, more obscure, figures, while thinkers as diverse as Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather), Lamarck, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire had developed their own ideas about the mutability of species.

Secondly, the scientific and pedagogical. As I indicated in Part I, Darwin’s theory (as we can call it, in the framework of its own time) did not contain within it anything resembling our modern concepts of genetics and mutation, while the identification of DNA as the material depository of genetic information lay almost a century in the future. When we teach about evolution today, we can use 21st-century molecular biology as our starting point; or we can point to the rich detail of the fossil record as examined by present-day techniques (think how recently we learned about feathered dinosaurs); or we can do competently what Haeckel did rather incompetently, and trace common features of embryonic development. Or we can talk about the cases of evolution being studied in the laboratory, or about the diversification of fish species in the natural laboratories provided by the great lakes of Africa. These topics show a live and vibrant science, greatly extending the concepts of a century and a half ago.

Finally, and most importantly, the logical and the rhetorical. Those who succeed in framing the terms of debate will gain an enormous advantage, regardless of the actual merits of their position. Lakoff (Don’t Think an Elephant) analyses how effectively the American Right have used this strategy, and as the current presidential election shows, the American Right and Creationism are now closely intertwined.

Attaching a proper name to a viewpoint suggests that it is individual, rather than part of a consensus, and marks it as incomplete, if not indeed superseded. Thus we speak of a Marxist or Freudian interpretation of history and human behaviour, and of Newtonian physics in contrast to relativistic or quantum physics. From this it is but a short step to the use of a proper name to discredit a point of view, rather like the use of proper names by the early Church to label damnable heresies, or by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to label equally damnable ideological deviations.

We can now understand the Creationists’ excessive, almost pathological, obsession with Darwin. Thus in the Creationist “supplementary textbook”, Explore Evolution, produced by the Discovery Institute and now being promoted by its satellites, I counted 29 occurrences of Darwin’s name or some variant of it within the 11 pages of the Introduction (but amazingly no reference to Darwin in the Index). Behe names his books Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution …The Limits of Darwinism, Johnson calls his Darwin on Trial and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, while Scotland’s own Antony Latham offers us The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed.

I therefore propose what I might call the “Dalton test” for using Darwin’s name. If you were talking about chemistry rather than biology, would you mention Dalton? If not, why mention Darwin? When Darwin’s name is invoked in the context of history of ideas (Gould, Ever since Darwin; Darwin’s Ghosts, already mentioned), or as a deliberately provocative rhetorical device (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) this is obviously appropriate. When “Darwin” is used as lazy shorthand for evolutionary biology, it is not; and every time we do this, we play into the hands of our opponents.

Theory of evolution”, as a synonym for evolutionary science, is another expression to avoid. We are all familiar with the bogus argument that evolution is a theory, theories are uncertain, and therefore evolution is uncertain. We all know the refutation: that “theory” has a special meaning in science, but this logical rebuttal does not stop the argument from being used to great rhetorical effect. More fundamentally, the emphasis on theory does biology (and Darwin himself) far less than justice. The reason that Darwin is a major figure, while Wallace is not, despite independent discovery of the same central concept, is the depth of observational detail with which Darwin was able to support his insights.

There are also deeper reasons for avoiding the emphasis on “theory”. Strategically, it evokes a fortress mentality, as if evolutionary biology were under siege and the experimental evidence had been summoned to relieve it. Rhetorically, that is a losing posture. Pedagogically, it is equally mistaken. The development of evolutionary thought from Buffon to the present day is a beautiful example of how science works, with observations triggering ideas and those ideas raising new questions for observers. To place theory first as if observation came second (or even the other way round) is to miss the entire point.

Labelling is a two-way street, and we also need our own language to describe the opponents of evolution science. Let’s refer to all those who deny a common ancestry for complex organisms as Creationists, since they are postulating a separate creation for each separate kind.[1] I would also propose the broader blanket term Supernaturalist for anyone who claims that biology can never be explained by the ordinary laws of nature, since the intervention of an entity not constrained by these laws of nature is by definition supernatural. By this clear and rigorous definition, the website Uncommon Descent, while most revealingly claiming to serve the Intelligent Design community, is self-confessedly Creationist. All Creationists are Supernaturalists, but a few Supernaturalists (e.g. Michael Behe) are not Creationists. Creationist supporters of Intelligent Design tend to keep quiet about their Creationism, and to vociferously assert that Creationism and Intelligent Design are completely different concepts. However, least two of the three officers of Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) are undoubtedly Creationists, as is Phillip Johnson, guiding spirit of the Discovery Institute, and many of that Institute’s Fellows including some that have visited the UK to take part in C4ID events, and Intelligent Design advocates should always be closely questioned as to their own views on common descent, and on the science that underlies it.

In conclusion, we must choose our own words, rather than letting our opponents choose our words for us, and those words should clearly label them for what they are.

As for Darwin, while giving him all due honour, we should make it clear that what we now possess is a much more complex and complete system than he could ever have imagined. There are the facts of evolution (the plural is important), and there are suggested theoretical explanations for these facts; together, these make up the present-day science of evolution. That is how it is, and that is how we should describe it.

[1] We should specify that this is how we are using the term, to pre-empt the deliberate confusion of this issue with such unrelated matters as the origin of life, or even of the Universe. And I specified complex organisms because some Creationists (see e.g. Explore Evolution) misuse genuine debate about hybridisation in the simplest life forms as cover for the doctrine of separate creation of kinds. Students of Creationism will recognise the term “kinds”, its role in the pseudoscience of Baraminology, and its relationship to Genesis 1:12-23.

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