Monday, 16 January 2012

God's Undertaker

Oxford mathematics professor and Christian apologist John C Lennox has recently acheived a high profile in Australia due to an appearance on the ABC's Q&A.  He has also debated noted atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer.  All of which means that sooner or later I was bound to check him out.

God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? is Lennox's summary of his arguments against the "scientific atheism" of the likes of Dawkins and Shermer.  Its central question is whether the evidence of science has really killed off the idea of God.  His main antagonist in this debate seems to be Dawkins, and a number of chapters in this book are direct refutations of claims made by Dawkins - that the process of natural selection is sufficient to explain the origin of life, that an interventionist god violates the laws of nature, that David Hume's arguments are a conclusive philosophical refutation of the possibility of miracles.

In the process, Lennox brings to bear the findings and observations of a range of distinguished scientists - Nobel Prize winners, Fellows of the Royal Society, professors at prestigious universities, and so forth.  Some of these are Christian, others are agnostic and some are even atheists, but they appear to share the view that science does not of itself disprove religion.  On what grounds?

Well, interestingly, the central theme of this book is a revival of the "argument from design", roundly mocked by atheists in the form popularly proposed by William Paley in the 18th Century - the analogy of discovering a watch and inferring the existence of a watchmaker.  Paley, and Lennox, both suggest that life as we know it is irreducably complex, that it could not come about by chance and the only possible explanation is that it has an intelligent designer. 

Lennox gives this argument a 21st Century makeover using the findings of modern physics, cosmology, genetics, and even paleontology.  Not surprisingly, as a mathematician he applies a liberal dose of probability calculation.  His calculations quickly exhausted by limited maths, but his conclusions are clear.

Firstly, he highlights the sensitivity of the boundary conditions for life set by our universe's physical constraints.  The slightest difference in such parameters as the nuclear background radiation required for the creation of carbon, the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force or the rate of entropy would make life impossible.  There is no theoretical reason, he says, why things have to be the incredibly improbable way they are, yet somehow they got to be just right for our arrival.

His most sustained attention, however, is focused on the probability of the chance emergence of the building blocks of life - amino acids, proteins, DNA and RNA.  "Pure" evolutionists argue for the emergence of these molecules gradually, over a period of billions of years.  Yet the information encoded even in amino acids is incredibly complex.  How could this complexity come about by chance?  His calculations of the probability of these chance developmentss produce mind-bogglingly large numbers, and he concludes that in practice they amount to impossibility within the time-frames available.

What's most fascinating is that of course Dawkins et al also know this.  Their response is that obviously there is something more than pure chance going on - nature is able to select for certain things, so that once they appear they self-perpetuate and accumulate.  Lennox turns this argument on its head, arguing that this can only be the case if the pattern for life is already existent, so that the process of evolution somehow "seeks" that pattern.  In Lennox's hands, Dawkins' attempts to demonstrate the possibility of chance producing life turn out to be examples of intelligent design.  Dawkins's computer simulations only work if they are already encoded with their end goal. 

I can hardly do justice to the full scope of his arguments.  His maths is beyond me, as is his physics, cosmology and genetics.  His array of eminent sources is certainly impressive as is his own scientific pedigree, and he is certainly not to be dismissed lightly.  Still I can't help thinking that his argument is a little circular.

It seems to me that he is far from proving his case and perhaps that is not his intent.  He has strayed into realms of such massive uncertainty that in the end we just have to say we don't know.  We know a lot about how things work now.  We have mapped the human genome and the extent of the galaxy.  We have detailed knowledge of biochemistry and a huge, although partial, fossil database.  However, the task of projecting backwards from this evidence to its origin is so incredibly speculative that it will inevitably be tainted by our worldview.  Lennox sees God, Dawkins sees chance.  Which God, or which chance?  These are questions of philosophy and theology, not of science.  In the end, Lennox convinces that the debate is still alive, and Dawkins' strident claims of victory are hugely premature.  Rumours of God's death are greatly exaggerated.

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