Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A critical review of John Lennox's God's Undertaker

Recently I was asked to review John Lennox's book, God's Undertaker: Has Science buried God?
I chose not to because there is already a helpful detailed review by Denis Alexander, former director of the Faraday Institute, published in Science and Christian Belief. He is much better qualified than I to discuss biology. I reproduce the review below.

I agree with the criticisms. I would not recommend the book, particularly because there are much better books available. Some I recommend at the bottom.
 I wish I could give an equally warm recommendation for God’s Undertaker by John Lennox, but this is unfortunately more problematic. This is very much a book in two halves. In the first 75 pages, the author gives a generally good overview of the limitations of science and the fact that science itself is unable to address the really big questions of life, such as why something exists rather than nothing, and why science itself is possible. Lennox points out that science itself was nurtured within a Christian world-view and there is nothing intrinsically ‘naturalistic’ about science, suggesting that the term ‘methodological naturalism’ is unhelpful as a way of describing the scientific enterprise, for all scientific descriptions for the theist are, by definition, descriptions of what God has done and continues to do. The author’s critique of reductionism, presentation of the inherent intelligibility of the universe and discussion of the anthropic principle are well presented, amply illustrated with useful quotes, and contribute to a strong first half of the book. 
It is once the author moves from the physical to the biological sciences in the second half (58% to be precise) of the book that things start to go seriously downhill. Lennox begins to build up a picture of ‘atheistic evolution’ as a purely ‘naturalistic process’ and it soon becomes apparent that it is Darwinism which is the main target. The term ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) is introduced without definition, so it is only as the chapters progress that it becomes clear that the author is using the language of ID in the same way as its US proponents, such as Dembski and Behe. As with these writers, Lennox exaggerates the alignment of the biological theory of evolution with naturalistic philosophy (two very different things), in order to highlight Darwinism as a target for religious attack. The author’s own advice given earlier in the book, to see the whole created order as reflecting God’s design, is somehow lost in this second section, where the possibility that God might choose to bring about biological diversity through the process of evolution, as maintained by those holding to both mainstream science and theology, is oddly ignored. 
Many of the traditional creationist and ID red herrings litter this second section. ‘It can be highly dangerous to think outside the evolutionary box’ (97). Really? I can think of no better guarantee for someone’s future career in the biological sciences than to publish a solid peer- reviewed paper that challenges a cur- rently held theory: it is every scientist’s dream scenario. But to publicise one’s doubts about a well-established theory in any branch of science without the solid backing of good papers in reputable journals is of course dangerous for one’s career, and rightly so, for criticism without evidence or justification is always a risky path to pursue in academia. 
Unfortunately Chapter 7, ‘The nature and scope of evolution’, presents a smorgasbord of misrepresentations and straightforward errors, too long to list here. The peppered moth story has been up-dated by Michael Majerus (2007) and its evolution remains a good exemplar of natural selection in action. The idea of natural selection is not a ‘tautology’, nor is it in the same class as ‘Freudian psychology and astrology’ (102); it is a theory with real explanatory power. Natural selection is not about the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ (103), but about reproductive fitness, which is not the same. The terms ‘microevolution’ and ‘macroevolution’ are not being ‘increasingly used’ (106); if anything the reverse is the case as the advent of genomics is leading to their decline with the realisation that some species are virtually indistinguishable morphologically but are genetically very distinct (like the worms C. elegans and C. briggsae, which have 800 unique protein- encoding genes each out of their complement of 20,000, and last shared a common ancestor about 100m years ago). Yet the author cites in support of his points on micro/macroevolution rather ancient literature, one (long discredited) citation even dating back to 1942. (107). The fossil data are misrepresented and the ‘model sequences’ of speciation found in the fossil record are far more impressive than the author seems aware: in particular, the evolution of the tetrapods from fish, the evolution of mammals, the evolution of the whale (a mammal that returned to the sea from land via Pakicetus, Ambulocetus and the fossil whale Basilosaurus which retains a complete mammalian hind limb), the evolution of elephants and horses, the evolution of turtles and many other examples besides. Nor in this volume do we hear of speciation in plants by polyploidy; the chromosomal inversions that have led to speciation in insects such as mosquitoes; ring speciation events (as in the Herring Gull and Californian salamanders); nor anything of the remarkable cichlid speciation of the African great lakes. The author even questions common descent, when the inheritance of ‘fossil’ genetic sequences in our genomes in the form of pseudogenes, retroviral insertions and transposons, together demonstrate our own common ancestry with the apes beyond any reasonable doubt. 
The last few chapters of God’s Undertaker are devoted to a discussion of the origin of life and of information. The author is only too aware of the dangers of the ‘god-of-the-gaps’ type of argument, but believes the origin of information to be a ‘gap in principle’ in contrast to a ‘gap in knowledge’. It is not clear why this should be the case. The mathematical arguments presented here in an attempt to demonstrate that the origin of biochemical information is ‘impossible in principle’ are deeply flawed because they are based, like so many of Dembski’s arguments, on the premise that proteins or long stretches of DNA self-assemble by a purely chance process. But no one believes that, so the arguments represent tilting at windmills, the assumption being that the stages leading to living matter occurred incrementally; it is pre- cisely how those incremental changes were preserved and reproduced that rep- resents one of the fascinating research challenges of the origin of life field. Indeed, there have been some remark- able advances in the field over the past decade, though there is no doubt at all there is a huge current gap in our scien- tific knowledge at this juncture. Does that matter theologically? It would seem odd if some theological conclusion hinged upon our current scientific ignorance about something. The author suggests that ‘design’ is the answer, but the answer seems vacuous in explaining any- thing or in generating a research pro- gramme. Perhaps this century, perhaps the next, the knowledge gap will slowly close, and surely Christians should see that ‘closing’ as part of our glad worship to the God who is the author of the whole created order, not as a threat to a poorly founded argument for God’s existence. 
The antipathy to Darwinism that is still displayed by some Christians, even by some academics like the present author, whose book appears to present some form of episodic creationism, is truly puzzling. For as Francisco Ayala points out, there is a great irony in the observation that supporters of ID and creationism agree with writers such as Richard Dawkins that evolution equates with atheistic materialism. It would surely be much more fruitful for people of faith to baptise the evolutionary account of origins into the biblical doctrine of creation, which is, after all, what Christians have been doing since 1859.
A critical review of Lennox's more recent book, Seven Days that Divide the World is here.

So what books would I recommend?
I list some here, in order of increasing level of sophistication.

User's Guide to Science and Belief by Michael Poole

Unnatural enemies: an introduction to science and Christianity by Kirsten Birkett

The Language of God by Francis Collins

Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose? by Denis Alexander

The Science of God by Alister McGrath

Monday, September 1, 2014

Can atheists be certain?

In the theology reading group next month we are looking at How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith. More on that later.

In the introduction Smith engages with the novelist Julian Barnes book, Nothing to be frightened of, that expresses his anxieties about dying and death. It looks like a fascinating book that has received wide praise from readers with a diversity of perspectives.

Here I just give one quote that Smith used:
If I called myself and atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first-century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1959, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgment. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that out knowledge is so final?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I have no choice

"I have to take the demanding job because I have to keep paying my house mortgage."

"She had no choice but to put her mother in a nursing home."

"Due to the budget deficit the government has no option but to cut education spending".

"We have to stop terrorism. Australia had no choice. We had to join the USA in the Iraq war."

I often hear statements such as these on topics ranging from personal finances to government policies. I find them disappointing and at times irritating. We always have a choice. I certainly acknowledge that most important decisions are complex and made difficult by prior commitments, competing interests, and personal pressures. Yet I think claiming there is "no choice" is problematic for several reasons.

It can be an attempt, sometimes sub-conscious, to avoid responsibility and accountability.

It cuts off discussion and debate, particularly about pre-suppositions.

It undermines our humanity. One of the beautiful things about our creatureliness is that God has given us freedom. Our freedom reflects the freedom of God. Karl Barth writes beautifully about this. We exercise this freedom in our choices.

In the context of war and violence, Rowan Williams has a nice discussion of this issue in his book The Truce of God .

Monday, August 25, 2014

Does science explain anything?

Of course it does, is the quick defensive answer!

But, the distinguished philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the provocative statement:
At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.
What is this about?
 [Edward Feser has a helpful commentary on this and on friday at UQ John Lennox discussed this].

Examples of the laws of nature are Newton's laws of the motion and the laws of thermodynamics. What are these laws? They are codifications or statements, often in mathematical form, [sometimes approximate] of the regular behaviour that have been observed in numerous scientific experiments. Reproducible exceptions to this behaviour are never observed. One never sees water run uphill or a body accelerate in the absence of an external force or an scrambled egg spontaneously unscramble.

On one level, Newton's laws of motion and law of gravity can be said to "explain" why planets move in elliptical orbits. But, what is the explanation of Newton's law of gravity? Why is it like it is? Well, we could say it is a particular limit of Einstein's general theory of relativity. But, how do we "explain" Einstein's theory. .... We are not sure... string theory is struggling, but that is another story.... The point is that science does not and cannot provide ultimate explanations. 

We can deal with the "why?" question in two ways.
One way is to rule it out of order.
Before Darwin, even educated people who had abandoned “Why” questions for rocks, streams and eclipses still implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the “Why” question where living creatures were concerned. Now only the scientifically illiterate do. But“only” conceals the unpalatable truth that we are still talking about an absolute majority.
        Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden 

Alternatively, we can follow the distinguished biochemist, Erwin Chargaff  and acknowledge
"Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question 'How?' but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question 'Why?'."
Then, we might consider looking outside science for ultimate explanations.

The possibility of miracles is another issue where Wittgenstein's statement is relevant. Miracles do "violate" the laws of nature. But, that does not mean miracles are impossible. By definition, a miracle is something extra-ordinary, i.e. something different from regular behaviour. But, if God determined the laws of nature [i.e. the way things normally happen], He certainly has the power and freedom to make things happen differently at certain times.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A suffering question

Yesterday I heard an excellent talk, "Why suffering?" by Dan Paterson, as part of Jesus Week at UQ.
He began with a moving personal account of a family tragedy that has shaped his own questions and struggles. Christianity does not provide answers that are completely satisfying, either intellectually or emotionally. Yet it is important to compare it to the alternatives. He then considered what different world views [Buddhism, Hinduism, and Atheism] say about suffering. He then asked a crucial question:

How does getting rid of the Christian God made any more sense of suffering, or given any more grounds for hope?

Much of the material in the talk is presented in a series of four blog posts.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jesus and climate change

This week is Jesus Week at University of Queensland. Several student christian groups sponsor a series of talks that aim to stimulate people to ask "Who is Jesus?"

Today I attended an excellent talk by John Cook, "Jesus and Climate Change". A similar talk can be watched here. John is founder of the blog, Skeptical Science. He first described why he cares about climate change. It is not just an environmental issue but a social justice issue. The people who have contributed least to global warming are those who will be affected the most. Furthermore, people in these poor countries have the least resources to adapt to the human induced changes [droughts, rising sea levels, increased flooding, ...].
John then discussed how Biblical passages such as Matthew 25 and Amos 5, challenged him as a Christian to be concerned about justice for the poor.
Cook's Christian commitment surprised one columnist in the Guardian.

Recently John was lead author of a paper

Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature

that concluded that 97 per cent of the 11,000 plus scientific papers published in the past twenty years supported human-induced global warming. This paper was tweeted by President Obama and led to a very funny and effective skit by John Oliver!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The ugly face of globalisation

The New Rulers of the World, a documentary by John Pilger, is worth watching. It considers the impact of globalisation on Indonesia, beginning in the 1960s. The complex mix of corrupt dictators, sweat shops, CIA, multinational corporations, the World Bank, and oppressive debt has created a quagmire of violence, inequality, and injustice.