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Supplements » Creation, The Royal Society and John Lennox (October 2008)
Creation, The Royal Society and John Lennox by David Holloway
The Royal Society and the Rev Professor Michael Reiss
A short time before he died G.K.Chesterton said in 1934:
“some … were told, a long while ago, that the world was made in six days. Most of you are now told that modern science contradicts this: a statement which is certainly much more of a lie than the statement it contradicts.”
Those Fellows of the Royal Society who last month forced the resignation of the Rev Professor Michael Reiss from his Royal Society post, should heed Chesterton’s words. Reiss had suggested that “creationism” should be treated as a “world-view” in science education “rather than as demonstrably unscientific.” The Times newspaper, supporting the attack on Reiss, said (12 September 2008) his mistake was “that it is acceptable to teach faith as if it were science.” But what is “creationism”? According to The Times (and the New Oxford Dictionary) it is the belief that:
“the universe and living organisms originated from acts of divine creation. This belief embraces the biblical account and rejects theories in which natural processes are central, such as evolution. Some creationists have accepted geological findings and other methods of dating the Earth, insisting that such accounts do not necessarily contradict Biblical teachings.”
So creationists do not hold natural processes as central - but they do not have to deny them. Nor are they all “six twenty-four hour days” creationists - for they may accept geological findings and other methods of dating the earth. But the convictions of these people who believe God created the world, now according to the Royal Society, are not to be discussed in science lessons. That, however, is quite contrary to the new National Curriculum whose programmes of study are to identify “the big ideas” that underpin any subject. The new Statutory content requirement on “How science works” says explicitly that pupils should be taught:
“how explanations of many phenomena can be developed using scientific theories, models and ideas; that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address; and how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and about the role of the scientific community in validating these changes.”
So it would seem that this attack on Professor Reiss is evidence of illiberalism and bigotry among a few scientists. The Sunday following Reiss’ resignation, Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Oxford, and an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, was interviewed on the BBC Sunday Programme. When asked whether clergy [referring to Michael Reiss] have any role to play in the Royal Society, he said: “Oh, none whatsoever … after all, religion is all about obfuscation.” When asked if he was interested in dialogue with religious people, he replied: “I’m interested in dialogue in the sense of trying to stamp out religion.” Thankfully, in academia, there are not only aggressive atheists. John Lennox also teaches at Oxford. A mathematician and philosopher of science he recently published God’s Undertaker: has science buried God? It was reviewed in The Guardian last December by a distinguished biologist, Colin Tudge. What follows (with the permission of the Newspaper Licensing Agency) is the full review.
John Lennox and God’s Undertaker
“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.’
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 [a list of instructions], 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.” So wrote Colin Tudge.
With regard to “origins” it is wise, in my judgment, to be cautious over the interpretation of Genesis and its “six days”, not least because according to Psalm 90 verse 4 (claimed to be by Moses)
“a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”
So centuries before Darwin (and Dawkins) great theologians like Augustine have said: “What kind of days these were, it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive”. On the other hand philosophers of science have argued that some scientific theories are not simple descriptions of fact but models with built-in inferring techniques. These can be valuable. But such theories including “Evolution with a capital E” may be one half science and one half metaphysics “and are not so much scientific discoveries as scientific myths” (Toulmin, Contemporary Scientific Mythology). All this, surely, needs to be discussed in the classroom along with Stephen Hawking’s comment in A Brief History of Time that
“it would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun … except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”