The art of the soluble
Added: Sat, 08 Dec 2007 00:00:00 UTC
Colin Tudge is full of praise for God's Undertaker, a sharp riposte to scientists from John Lennox
God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?
by John Lennox
192pp, Lion Hudson, £14.99
Well - has science buried God? Of course not. John Lennox answers his own question decisively. No one who understands what science really is and is not could suppose that such interment was ever on the cards. No one who understands what religion really is, beneath its sometimes ugly face, could suppose that it would be good to bury it.
Why then does Lennox, reader in maths at Oxford and outstanding Christian scholar, feel it is necessary to ask the question at all? Because the notion that the two must be at loggerheads has of late been trumpeted by many a pundit, including American philosopher Dan Dennett, Oxford professor of chemistry Peter Atkins and, most eloquently, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins. Atkins and Dawkins are prominent scientists - Dawkins one of the most original theorists of our age. But on matters of theology their arguments are a disgrace: assertive without substance; demanding evidence while offering none; staggeringly unscholarly.
For all the great founders of modern science - Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Robert Boyle, John Ray and their Muslim predecessors - their research was itself an act of reverence. The list continues through the 19th century, with Faraday, Babbage and Kelvin. From our present age, Lennox quotes Sir Ghillean Prance, former director of Kew: "All my studies have confirmed my faith."
Contrast this with Atkins, more hardline even than Dawkins: "There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence. Only the religious - among whom I include not only the prejudiced but the underinformed - hope that there is a dark corner of the universe that science can never hope to illuminate." And: "Humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose."
Yet Atkins, as a professor of science, must be aware of Sir Peter Medawar's famous adage, adapted from Bismarck, "Science is the art of the soluble". Scientists study only those aspects of the universe that it is within their gift to study: what is observable; what is measurable and amenable to statistical analysis; and, indeed, what they can afford to study within the means and time available. Science thus emerges as a giant tautology, a "closed system". It can present us with robust answers only because its practitioners take very great care to tailor the questions.
Religion, by contrast, accepts the limitations of our senses and brains and posits at least the possibility that there is more going on than meets the eye - a meta-dimension that might be called transcendental. Dawkins talks of religion not simply as "faith" but as "blind faith" - yet this, as Lennox points out, is a simple calumny. The greatest theologians, beginning at least as early as St Paul and continuing through Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and Newman and again into modern times, have never been "blind". All have stressed the need to take account of the facts of the case (the thing that science is good at) and to engage the intellect: absolutely not to believe things blindly.
Taking seriously the idea of transcendence is very reasonable indeed. As many modern physicists have pointed out, the universe simply could not function - the Big Bang would never have happened, or if it did would simply have made a mess - if all the physical constants, from the magnitude of gravity to the mass of the proton, had not been exactly right. Of course, we can explain such consistency without invoking intelligence and purpose, but as Lennox shows, the arguments needed to do this are extraordinarily contrived. Ironically, these arguments break the rule of parsimony - always opt for the simplest explanation - which lies at the heart of science itself.
It is perfectly rational to propose that the universe is indeed without purpose - that what we see is all there is. But to assert that this is so, as Dawkins and Atkins do, is not at all "rational". It is merely a piece of dogma. Indeed, atheism - when you boil it down - is little more than dogma: simple denial, a refusal to take seriously the proposition that there could be more to the universe than meets the eye. To use science to justify such dogma, as these professors do, is a gross misuse of their own trade.
More specifically, Dawkins famously showed that it is possible to build a computer model that could generate huge complexity - analogous in an arm-waving way to the complexity of nature - just by applying an all-purpose rule, an algorithm, that simulated natural selection. Indeed, says Lennox. But the algorithm works only because it has been very carefully designed - by Dawkins. Yet Dawkins argues that the complexity of nature - many orders of magnitude greater than anything that a computer can simulate - has been achieved by an analogous algorithm that does not, apparently, require intelligence. If Dawkins could show how the algorithm that has produced the living world could arise spontaneously, then he would have gone a long way to making his point. As things stand, he has not begun even to address it. He is taken seriously in this not because his arguments are sound but because he is an outstanding rhetorician. It is the art of bamboozlement.
There is no more important debate than this - science versus religion. But it needs to begin again, with a clear understanding of what science and religion actually are. Lennox has done this wonderfully.
· Colin Tudge's Feeding People Is Easy is published by Pari Books
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