More on the Dawkins-Williams debate

I made reference in Sunday’s sermon to the polite conversation at Oxford between celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Since the only book I’ve read by Dawkins is the execrable God Delusion, I’m not inclined to be as generous toward the man as my friend Kevin Hargaden in this post. Nevertheless, Kevin is such a skillful writer and thinker, he usually gets my attention—as he does here:

In seriousness, Dawkins has won his reputation as a public intellectual on merit. But it comes from the biology work he did in the early 1980′s and not the stuff he has been increasingly consumed with these last two decades. The God Delusion is a truly horrendous book and it rather took the funk out of Dawkins’ reputation. He is just, it seems, another Daniel Dennett with a nicer accent. His atheism is a variety of logical positivism crossed with neo-liberal sociology wrapped up in a paper thin adoration of an unreasonable thing called “Reason“. He is bound in advance to win every engagement on the terms he sets. But he is mute in the face of Capuchins dedicating their life to helping the homeless or local churches rallying around the families left behind after suicide. Such things are merely voluntary acts of random kindness in his world view. He avoided any public engagement with Christians that wasn’t a debate and he avoided any Christians that actually speak for the global church. Hence he seeks out the Haggards and creationist nutters. That way, he avoided Christianity.

11 thoughts on “More on the Dawkins-Williams debate”

  1. Good post. However, as you already know from my many previous reply comments, I take issue with the reference to “creationist nutters.” Of course there are some “nutters” around in any field. But there are not any more likely to be “nutters” in the creationist fold than in the evolutionist fold. Rather (in my estimation, at least), it is generally the other way around. Believing that chance events could result in our world and universe as they now are, beginning with some spectacular and inexplicable “Big Bang,” is “nutterism” maxed out. (IMO.)

    1. I came across this blog via Kevin’s blog. It would indeed be nutterism to believe that chance events could result in our world, but evolutionary biologists and cosmologists do not claim this. Evolution describes the diversification of life through non-random selection of genetic variation.

      1. Morbert, even assuming there could be “non-random selection of genetic variation” at some point along the way, the first problem would be getting the universe and the earth and life to such a “stage” for that to start happening. Also, when you say, “non-random,” I am not sure what you mean. Do you mean “directed”? As far as I know, that is what atheistic scientists deny. Consequently, if we are to take the atheistic scientists as our “guide” to what happened, I am not sure we can “superimpose” a “God is behind it all” gloss just to overcome “guidelessness.” The Christian evolutionist would still say the same things happened, i.e., take his lead from the atheistic scientist as to “what actually happened” along the way. Which, as I understand the atheists, was “random” mutation which then “prevailed” because it could “survive better.” (As though anything in an “inbetween” stage could “survive better.)

      2. Tom: The guidance is natural selection. Selective pressures on populations result in the complexity of life. Here is a typical example of a journal documenting the evidence for, and consequences of, Darwinian evolution.

        The question of the origin of the universe is not a question of chance. “Chance” requires a set of possible outcomes, and some stochastic process generating outcomes. It is instead a question of the form of quantum gravity.

      3. Quantum gravity? Is this what Hawking was talking about a couple of years ago? Even if there were such a thing that set into motion a string of events that led to… well, the world as we know it, it doesn’t explain the “origins” of the universe, as in existence itself. Why something and not nothing? Why these conditions such that we have this universe. I realize you didn’t use the word existence, so I might be misunderstanding you. Science can’t “get at” what’s underneath science, the ground of existence itself. That requires recourse to some metaphysics, whether you buy into the God of Christianity or not.

      4. Thanks, Morbert. I added the website to my “Favorites” so I can visit it as I might have time.

        I looked up “stochastic” in Webster’s (11th ed.) since I was not previously familiar with that term. It is defined as “1: RANDOM; specif.: involving a random variable 2: involving chance or probability: PROBABILISTIC .” I note that the definition does include “chance.”

        I am not quite sure I follow what you are saying when you say, “‘Chance’ requires a set of possible outcomes.” Are you saying everything was “predetermined” (i.e., no other possible outcomes given the “start”)? What “form of quantum gravity” is it that “determined” that the Big Bang would occur, and how it would proceed?

        I see Brent’s comment intervened before I finished this one. I certainly agree with Brent. I would note that quantum gravity itself would have to “come into existence” to then make everything “follow its dictates.” Where did “quantum gravity” come from, then?

        As to “natural selection,” I don’t agree that the nature of the “earthly environment” (itself something that needs explaining) is such that it could “pressure” some “protozoan” into millions of different life forms of incredible complexity (the protozoan itself is pretty remarkable even as a “starting point”). It may well be that our environment “impacts” our development to some degree–I don’t argue that. But “natural selection” is not “big enough” to handle the task to get what we have around us–much less us.

      5. Brent: Hawking’s model is a proposal for quantum gravity. There are still several issues to resolve in the field, as the two ingredients you need (Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of gravitation) don’t sit well together. What I feel is important here is, whatever form quantum gravity may take, it is not a theory where a universe is randomly generated with a set of arbitrary parameters. So the atheist position is not “Our universe is finely tuned for life because it was a lucky chance event.”

        As for the more metaphysical question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”: I agree, science has nothing to say about it on that level. Atheists generally take the same positions Christians take when asked “Why is there a God rather than nothing?”. The universe is not obliged to be fathomable in its entirety by our meagre brains. And also, when a “why” question is asked, it has to be asked in the context of some assumed truths, for reasons outline in this interesting clip by Richard Feynman.

        Tom: Healthy scepticism about the scope of Darwinian evolution is perfectly fine. I would ask, though, that your scepticism result in further investigation into the evidence for evolution, instead of immediate incredulity. You will hopefully see that the evidence not only renders Darwinian evolution as plausible, but that the signature of evolution is clear in the structure and history of life. If you have any particular questions about any specific issue with evolution, I would be happy to answer them.

      6. Thanks for clarifying, Morbert. As to the question of luck and fine tuning, I was simply accepting the terms of Dawkins’s argument, which concedes that we got lucky with a universe that is finely tuned. You might investigate what he means and how he reconciles this with quantum gravity.

      7. Morbert, I am aware of literature as to bird beaks and color modifications, etc., as a result of the environment. Again, I don’t dispute such things. It may be that you could point me to some specific on-line journal article, or the like, which explains the various steps which transpired between the protozoan and the elephant, or the ostrich, or the hyena, and the like. Also, what animals, if any, that existed “in the line of change.” (Did the ostrich have a chicken in its lineage? Or a hummingbird? Or a dinosaur?). These are the kinds of “specifics” that are totally missing from the “scientific” literature–instead, there is merely “speculation” on such subjects (I believe Darwin’s Origin of Species said, “We might suppose …” continually).

        As to, “Why does anything exist?” being a charge equally applicable to God as anything else, this is incorrect. All the “things” which we observe “run down” (entropy, etc.). Also, they are dependent on other things. Besides that, there is no scientific way of “replicating” the Big Bang to prove such a thing could happen, as a matter of science. And, we just don’t see things “popping into existence” out of nothing. That is not a “scientific observation.” There are a whole host of scientific problems with complex natural laws and the entire mass/energy of the universe “popping into existence” out of nothing.

        Now, I agree that the eternal existence of God is certainly a mystery, and not susceptible to complete comprehension on our part. However, if there is a God as Christianity has “defined” him to be (that is, actually, as the Bible has “revealed” him to be), then he would be the most likely thing to have always existed as anything could be. And here we are. Things do exist. Consequently, since there could not be a “purely natural” explanation for them, and certainly not one that anyone could “prove,” then there must of necessity be a “God” explanation for them, simply because God is the only “thing” which could have “pulled this off.” As I say, “quantum gravity” is just not “big enough” to have pulled everything off, whereas God is. And the “biological evolution” model of Darwin is not either–in fact, there is no evidence at all of any “major species” transformation in the fossil record, or even “on the drawing board (i.e., capable of being, or in fact actually, “worked out” by “scientific study”). Give me an elephant or a tortoise, not bird beaks.

  2. Here is an example of a Hillis plot of the tree of life for 3,000 species.

    It shows the kind of links found between ostriches, elephants, hyenas, and bacteria. You are hopefully curious as to how such a diagram is constructed. Creationist literature parrots an old mantra that it is largely guesswork: That we build an arbitrary hierarchy based on similarities (The same type hierarchy you could build for cars or planes). This is entirely untrue.

    Instead, what happens is scientists look at a variety of possible ways of arranging the tree of life (they would look at, say, 34 million different arrangements for some subsection of life), they pick an arbitrary gene (e.g. haemoglobin A), and see which possible arrangement best matches variations in haemoglobin A. They then pick another gene (e.g. Cytochrome C) and do the same. They repeat this for other genes, and what they see is all genes map out the same tree of life. If we do the same for intelligently designed objects, like cars or planes, there is no such correlation. Car doors do not produce the same hierarchy as steering wheels, for example. Indeed, the singling out of a specific hierarchy is exactly what we would expect if evolution were true, and not at all what we would expect if intelligent design were true.

    Scientists then took this tree, and compared it to the geographical distribution hierarchy of life across the globe and, sure enough, the hierarchies matched. As a bonus, they looked at the temporal hierarchy of fossil distributions and, sure enough, they got the same match. For all these independent lines of evidence to produce the same tree of life would be a massive, massive coincidence.

    The question of “Why there is a God rather than nothing?” is not a criticism of theism. But similarly, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is not a valid criticism of atheism. We can understand facets of the universe, and we call them laws (E.g. 2nd law of thermodynamics, Schrodinger equation, conservation of momentum etc.), but there is no reason to believe our finite brains are capable of understanding the entirety of the universe on all levels of understanding.

    As for “Something coming from nothing”: The discussion would have to become a little involved. I often disagree with such a description of quantum processes. “Something from nothing”, in this case, is not creatio ex nihilo, but rather an excitation from a topological Hilbert space, a fluctuation of topology with 0 space and time. For this reason, I do not recommend Stephen Hawking’s books. His actual paper on the matter is much clearer, though technical.

    And I again stress that this is not a complete picture of quantum gravity. It is certainly not being tendered as a “Theory of Everything”, even in the empirical sense.

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