Hard News by Russell Brown


The God Thing

Time magazine's Science vs God debate between Richard Dawkins and Christian geneticist Francis Collins was interesting. I've noticed a bit of blog comment claiming that Dawkins was skewered on this or that philosophical point, but I think he handles that stuff quite well, in the sense that there are much bigger holes in Collins' argument than Dawkins' by the end of it.

I thought this passage was quite good:

DAWKINS: Yes. For centuries the most powerful argument for God's existence from the physical world was the so-called argument from design: Living things are so beautiful and elegant and so apparently purposeful, they could only have been made by an intelligent designer. But Darwin provided a simpler explanation. His way is a gradual, incremental improvement starting from very simple beginnings and working up step by tiny incremental step to more complexity, more elegance, more adaptive perfection. Each step is not too improbable for us to countenance, but when you add them up cumulatively over millions of years, you get these monsters of improbability, like the human brain and the rain forest. It should warn us against ever again assuming that because something is complicated, God must have done it.

COLLINS: I don't see that Professor Dawkins' basic account of evolution is incompatible with God's having designed it.

TIME: When would this have occurred?

COLLINS: By being outside of nature, God is also outside of space and time. Hence, at the moment of the creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out, perhaps even including our having this conversation. The idea that he could both foresee the future and also give us spirit and free will to carry out our own desires becomes entirely acceptable.

DAWKINS: I think that's a tremendous cop-out. If God wanted to create life and create humans, it would be slightly odd that he should choose the extraordinarily roundabout way of waiting for 10 billion years before life got started and then waiting for another 4 billion years until you got human beings capable of worshipping and sinning and all the other things religious people are interested in.

COLLINS: Who are we to say that that was an odd way to do it? I don't think that it is God's purpose to make his intention absolutely obvious to us. If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?

So all questions are moot because God is unknowable. Hmmmm. I do sometimes tire of Dawkins' militancy, but I appreciate his acknowledgement of the strangeness and mysterious of the universe:

DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.

COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me. He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those "How must it have come to be" questions.

DAWKINS: I think that's the mother and father of all cop-outs. It's an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from. Now Dr. Collins says, "Well, God did it. And God needs no explanation because God is outside all this." Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain. Scientists don't do that. Scientists say, "We're working on it. We're struggling to understand."

TIME: Could the answer be God?

DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.

COLLINS: That's God.

DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small--at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that's the case.

At no point does Collins, for all the room he carefully makes for a God, give any hint of why God should be his Biblical God, and not anyone else's. As Dawkins concludes, if there is something resembling God - some being, some principle, some profound initial conditions for the Universe - it's likely to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the workaday representations presently on offer.

DAWKINS: My mind is not closed, as you have occasionally suggested, Francis. My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else. What I am skeptical about is the idea that whatever wonderful revelation does come in the science of the future, it will turn out to be one of the particular historical religions that people happen to have dreamed up. When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable--but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don't see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.

Dawkins is currently on a book tour of the US, which includes various lecture stops. Norm at OneGoodMove has been dishing out clips from a lecture at Lynchburg, Virginia, which was also attended by students and faculty from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, rather adding to the atmosphere. I did like Dawkins' response to a question about Liberty's claim to be in possession of dinosaur bones a mere 3000 years old.

And, finally, more signs that American evangelicals are drifting away from political engagement, at least in the context of the "religious right". Jim Wallis suggests that evangelical Christians are moving on from the twin obsession with abortion and gay marriage, and "now care about a wider range of moral issues, such as poverty and economic justice, the environment, HIV/AIDS, genocide in Darfur, human rights, sex trafficking, and matters of war and peace, especially Iraq."

And the partisan "God gap" has halved since 2004. Newsweek is characterising it as a "war between the religious right and believers who want to go broader."

Interesting …

PS: Yesterday's discussion proved, unsurprisingly, to be not much about rugby and all about The Stadium. It's still quite lively, if you want to have your say. Then, at 10.15pm last night, I get a call from a Herald reporter wanting to know what I think about the waterfront proposal. She'd seen the blog, so I reiterated that I could certainly see the appeal, but I wanted to be assured it was deliverable.

Then I go around to the shop and get the paper this morning and blearily see that my picture is on the front page, along with those of various other media wankers and a politician. I guess they needed another "yes" vote to make it four-all, or possibly just to fill up the page. Thus have I been dragged into the Herald's debate. Yamis at Blogging It Real says Build the Fucking Thing! . And Justin Harwood has set up a Stadium Vote website.

Also, you need to see these two new entries in OurTube: A wonderful animation about kids and computers from a Massey University student, and a bittersweet cartoon about a Kiwi, created by an American.

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