Sir Harry Kroto, Science and Faith

Today I had the pleasure of attending three events with Nobel prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto. Sir Harry is an atheist with a Jewish father, and a friend of Richard Dawkins. He is not afraid to talk about religion as evidenced during his recent interview with Kim Hill and by numerous remarks during the sessions today.

As for me, I’m not an atheist (although I was brought up as such) so it is usually with some trepidation that I attend lectures and talks such as these, just in case my faith [1] is shattered. Over the years I have been to many university-based science lectures and found this fear to rarely be justified and the challenges to Christianity to actually be incredibly weak. To be fair, I go to such lectures and talks trying to be as open-minded as I can be, and trying to consider the facts presented both in their isolated form and as part of a larger worldview. Sir Harry’s talks however appeared to present little if anything that would convince me to change my mind, although I would love to have had the opportunity to have chatted with him one-on-one (or any another scientist) and let them try to convince me.

On this point, Dawkins and Sam Harris and others have something to gain by converting me. I’m involved in a church with students, and various other activities with friends and family. If they could convince me that I am wrong and that they are right, then I would join them and become an evangelist for their side. I could make new converts within my church friends and stop pestering my family over their salvation and the “hell” word that Dawkins and Sir Harry seem so offended about.

I should spend a moment on this “hell” topic too since it keeps coming up. What I see regarding this is both a double-standard and a straw-man fallacy. Let’s take the latter first.

Dawkins and Sir Harry have both quoted instances of children being scared by such things as “hell houses” or having children scared to the point of psychological damage in some way regarding hell. Yet this seems intellectually dishonest as I think Anthony Flew has pointed out. For example, take 1,000 church kids and (somehow) determine how many of them have psychological damage from their parents talking about hell. I know numerous kids and none of them to my knowledge live in some disturbed state, and nor do my kids, yet I make it no secret that hell is a reality according to the Bible. What the new atheists and Sir Harry appear to be doing is taking the (perhaps) one or two cases per 1,000 and citing these as if they are normal.

As for the double standard, let’s consider what atheists are teaching young people. Young person: you are part of a cosmic accident, a piece of highly evolved pond-scum. But don’t worry, you are good pond scum. And life is good and has much meaning. We don’t know what it is, but fear not for you can pretend life has meaning which should make you feel better and you will have less reason to follow 500 other New Zealanders each year by committing suicide. Yes, we know that the universe began with a big bang and ultimately will end in a whimpering heat death. But don’t worry, you will be long dead before that happens, and your ashes will be part of that (cough) meaningful utopic picture.

This leads on to another point which is the trouble universities are having recruiting science students. I’m not about to suggest that atheism and post-modernism are the reasons for the disinterest in science, but I think they do play a role. Consider, if you live a life that is ultimately meaningless (born, live, reproduce, die, nothingness), then why would you choose an occupation that is hard and doesn’t pay well? Why ought I live for the good of all and work on great science that helps improve lives rather than just live for myself? Of course atheists counter this by saying that they are philanthropic and good people to which I would often agree. But my question is why ought they be like that rather than be selfish and self centered? Christians (and some other) religious people know how they ought to behave, but atheists have to take a pragmatic view on oughts, yet one persons’ ought may differ from anothers’ ought, so which do we choose and why?

I have a lot more thoughts on this topic but will finish on the question of knowledge as this is a biggie when it comes to scientists and their worldviews. As Sir harry pointed out on several occasions, he is not going to believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet this claim is itself self-refuting. Does he have evidence for not believing anything unless it is based on evidence? But I think it is worse that that and I should like to expand on this in another post sometime, but here is an outline.

Scientists often make the claim as Sir Harry does that we should not believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet it seems to me that non-religious scientists actually believe everything based on faith. For example:

  1. Do they know the world was not created 5 minutes ago? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
  2. Do they use the laws of logic? If so, can they provide evidence that they are reliable? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
  3. Do scientists believe in the uniformity of nature? Do they believe that the next experiment will behave as the previous one? Will some experiment behave the same in another country, on another planet, in another galaxy, or at another time? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.

Let me finish now with a few big words and why I believe what I believe.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know, while ontology deals with the nature of existence or being. I fail to understand how the science alone can access reality in any definite way because to do so requires meta-knowledge such as: are my senses are reliable, is nature uniform, am I a brain in a vat, and is the world the creation of a cosmic trickster? Science seems unable even in principle to access such knowledge. Christianity on the other hand begins in ontology with the existence of God and His revelation through the Bible which cuts through the veil and reveals a world created with order and meaning. C.S. Lewis wrote [2]:

Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared—the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age.

I think a nice way to sum this up is to say that to gain certainty, we must begin in ontology as a grounding for epistemology. The law-giving legislator provides this starting point and provides a basis for science. On the other hand, beginning with epistemology as Dawkins and Sir Harry appear to do leads ultimately to total uncertainty because nothing can really be known for sure about anything. I think Rene Descartes realized this long ago. Should someone tell the new atheists?

Footnotes:

  1. In case you are thinking that I am using “faith” as something that is disconnected from reason, I am certainly not. My faith is firmly anchored using a chain of reason to the historical claims of the Bible. These in turn are treated as other historical claims are, and weighed upon available evidence, logic, reasonableness and so on.
  2. Lewis, C.S., Miracles: a Preliminary Study, Collins, London, p. 110, 1947.

Further reading:

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p.132 has a section “The Regularity of Nature” dealing with the problem of induction, David Hume and Bertrand Russell. Keller says that many scholars have argued in the last decades that modern science arose in its most sustained form out of Christian civilization due to belief in an all-powerful, personal God who created and sustains an orderly universe. I would add that reading for example, Homer’s Illiad, would not provide you with such a view of nature.

13 replies
  1. Heraclides
    Heraclides says:

    Sir Harry’s talks however appeared to present little if anything that would convince me to change my mind

    Unless his talks were aimed at “challenging religions points of view”, why would anyone expect them to present “anything that would convince me to change my mind”? It’s not reasonable to ask that someone talking about one topic to give you convincing material about an unrelated topic. It’d be like me expecting some Christian’s talk about say, environmental issues, to convince me about Christianity. Sure they might make the odd passing remark about their beliefs, but since their talk is not about Christianity, it’d be unreasonable to expect it convince anyone much about Christianity. What you are asking for doesn’t make sense and reads like a sloppy excuse to dismiss someone.

    So why don’t you tell us what his talks were actually about? (I note that readers can infer that their main topics were not religion from your words: “and by numerous remarks during the sessions today”; obviously references to religion were only made in passing remarks.)

    As for the double standard, let’s consider what atheists are teaching young people. Young person: you are part of a cosmic accident, a piece of highly evolved pond-scum. But don’t worry, you are good pond scum. And life is good and has much meaning. We don’t know what it is, but fear not for you can pretend life has meaning which should make you feel better and you will have less reason to follow 500 other New Zealanders each year by committing suicide. Yes, we know that the universe began with a big bang and ultimately will end in a whimpering heat death. But don’t worry, you will be long dead before that happens, and your ashes will be part of that (cough) meaningful utopic picture.

    You are putting words others wouldn’t say into their mouths, a very, very poor way to argue, to say the least. Why would atheists say humans are “pond scum”? No-one goes around saying that. [Trademark passive-aggressive well-poisoning “psycho-analysis” removed —Bnonn] By definition humans are human, not pond scum. Humans have evolved from simpler forms of life. And so on for the rest of it.

    Consider, if you live a life that is ultimately meaningless (born, live, reproduce, die, nothingness), then why would you choose an occupation that is hard and doesn’t pay well?

    Straw man rubbish again. The first part you have pasted onto the latter, but the first part hasn’t anything to do with it: [Trademark passive-aggressive well-poisoning “psycho-analysis” removed —Bnonn]

    And then you go on to bring up the tired old attempts to dismiss “evidence”, at which point I’m leaving because that’s a waste of time reading…

    [Irrelevant ad hominem removed —Bnonn]

  2. Simon
    Simon says:

    I did quite enjoy reading this, Rob. Just one comment (you seem to align the word epistemology with science, so I have assumed the same):

    Christianity on the other hand begins in ontology with the existence of God and His revelation through the Bible which cuts through the veil and reveals a world created with order and meaning.

    This statement is an epistemological claim, Rob. You are claiming that the Christian worldview fits better. How do you know this except through epistemology?

  3. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Hey Rob, I think you have things slightly backwards here:

    I think a nice way to sum this up is to say that to gain certainty, we must begin in ontology as a grounding for epistemology. The law-giving legislator provides this starting point and provides a basis for science.

    While I agree with your general conclusion, Christians don’t begin with ontology (more correctly: metaphysics; ontology is just the study of being as opposed to the study of reality). Epistemology always logically precedes general metaphysics. Taking the Bible as God’s word is an epistemological commitment. That’s where our metaphysic comes from. So Christians rightly begin with epistemology—but that epistemology is naturally tied to the supporting biblical metaphysic.

    On the other hand, beginning with epistemology as Dawkins and Sir Harry appear to do leads ultimately to total uncertainty because nothing can really be known for sure about anything.

    But Dawkins and Sir Harry don’t start with epistemology—that’s why their worldviews are such a sad mess. They start with metaphysics and don’t bother with epistemology at all. They just assume everything they need to prove as part of their metaphysics. How do we know nature is regular? It just is; it’s obvious. How do we know that the universe wasn’t created five minutes ago with the appearance of age? It just wasn’t; it’s obvious. They don’t have any real answers to epistemological questions. They just brush them off as “mind games” or irrelevant to science or whatever. You see this with Ken and his ilk too—they refuse to allow epistemology into their worldviews at all, because it’s “outside the purview of science”. It’s kind of sad really, to see how blind and stupid they have allowed themselves to become. But yeah, scientists in Dawkin’s stream definitely don’t start with epistemology—they don’t even end with it.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  4. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Well, I can’t speak for Kroto specifically because I don’t know enough about him, but from what I’ve seen of Dawkins he manifestly does not start with any epistemology. He might be interpreted as holding to an empiricist epistemology, but that is different from self-consciously starting with one and recognizing its existence and believing that it’s justified.

    And of course, empiricism (at least in the form Dawkins could be interpreted to hold) is really dead in terms of modern philosophy. It’s been dead a long time. It’s dead because it is a failure as an epistemology—a manifest failure.

  5. Simon
    Simon says:

    I know not of the fashions of philosophy. Yes I said fashions. But at the end of the day empiricism is no less that the posterchild of human endeavour.

    I just don’t understand your inability to empathise(understand) with a Dawkins-esque worldview. It’s not rocket science. You think it’s obvious that the bible is the word of god, metaphysical naturalists think it’s obvious that nature is all their is. It isn’t hard.

    How do we know that nature is regular? By looking at it.
    How do we know that the universe wasn’t created five minutes ago with the appearance of age? We don’t, and even by your own standards it would be unverifiable. So why talk about it? Why do you not go around worrying whether the bible was planted on earth by an extra-terrestrial pentruped named Sam? Same reason.

  6. Rob
    Rob says:

    Good questions Simon. Here are a few thoughts:

    I know not of the fashions of philosophy. Yes I said fashions. But at the end of the day empiricism is no less that the posterchild of human endeavour.

    Well, empiricism is certainly a useful tool for doing certain things in science. But it seems to be a very limited tookset as so much of science is no longer empirical and so much of what we call knowledge is not obtained via empirical means. Rather, much science is based in mathematical models. So I think empiricism has only limited utility.

    I just don’t understand your inability to empathise(understand) with a Dawkins-esque worldview. It’s not rocket science. You think it’s obvious that the bible is the word of god, metaphysical naturalists think it’s obvious that nature is all their is. It isn’t hard.

    You are right — Dawkin’s worldview is easy to understand. But when we critique anothers’ position, we don’t base the truthfulness of it upon the simplicity of it.

    Islam may be easier to understand in part than Christianity — does that make it true? Of course not.

    Newtonian physics may be simpler than Einsteinian physics — does that make it a better model of reality? Of course not.

    How do we know that nature is regular? By looking at it.

    Couple of points Simon. First, you are of course question begging. Or perhaps just being pragmatic. “It works, so get on with it.” But of course your worldview and experience is imposing upon you your answer. Another may see it quite differently. How do you then test it? Perhaps life is all illusory as per Eastern religions. Then why should we try to eliminate suffering if it is all illusion?

    Second, it is intellectually lazy to just say “because it is”. I’m sure you don’t play by this rule in other parts of your life.

    Third, Dawkins and his mates need to address this if they are to convince people such as myself. I would see my worldview as better than his — e.g. it has better explanatory power — and will continue to do so while his worldview continues to be so inadequate.

    Why do you not go around worrying whether the bible was planted on earth by an extra-terrestrial pentruped named Sam?

    As I pointed out in my post above, ultimately we all take everything by faith — including Richard Dawkins. As I understand it, ultimate reality begins with the Biblical God (ontology). This is the bedrock upon which all else is built. God creates the world and us and reveals this story thru the Scriptures which we take via a step of faith. This step of faith provides us with an epistemic basis for understanding the nature of the world. (Of course, if the Bible did not correspond with reality, then it would be a poor epistemic basis.)

    Dawkins and co of course make a similar step of faith, but it is much shallower and has much poorer ability to explain reality as you show above.

    There is a very interesting set of MP3 lectures (3 I think, possibly on epistemology) at http://www.bethinking.org by a chap from Labri (think: Francis Schaeffer) who takes a similar line to mine above but ties it in to the philosophies of Plato versus Aristotle. It is quite hard going but very very thought provoking (and I think sensible). Essentially, Plato starts with faith and gains certainly while Aristotle begins (like Descartes) with reason and ends up losng all certainty!

  7. Simon
    Simon says:

    Rob,

    I’m not sure what science you mean when you say that so much of science is not empirical. I’m surprised! please expand.
    Mathematics is empirical, though, Rob. How do you think it came about? We invented it to describe our world, just as we do in science.

    I think you misunderstand me on Bnonn’s lack of empathy of naturalism. Bnonn claims they don’t start with epistemology at all. They do. They claim that only natural explanations are sensible and he claims that the bible is the word of god. These are both epistemological claims. But Bnonn can’t see that the naturalsit claim is epistemological, just as he can’t see the exact same problems in his own. Indeed, he nicely mirrors the naivete of Dawkins in his statement that they just assume everything that they seek to prove. Dawkins would say the same of theism.

    You are right to point out that I am question-begging as follows. Bnonn wants to think that there is a Platonic ideal called ‘regular’ floating somewhere out there and that we can compare the world to. There isn’t (indeed I think THIS is the philosophically naive view by today’s standards). The words ‘regular’ and ‘world’ are parasitic off one another. When we talk of the ‘world’ we mean the observable world that is ‘regular’. There has never been an ‘irregularity’ that we know is forever unknowable. In fact the real question is, how on earth do you test if the world is irregular?! How do we know which observable phenomena, if any, are unknowable as opposed to just being unknown presently?
    Don’t get me wrong I understand why you find your worldview more satisfying but I just think that you can’t see the flaw:

    For example take your statement “As I pointed out in my post above, ultimately we all take everything by faith — including Richard Dawkins.
    ………..
    Dawkins and co of course make a similar step of faith, but it is much shallower and has much poorer ability to explain reality as you show above.”

    This is completely contradictory. You rightly claim that, ultimately, we all take something as a given/by faith. But then you go on to COMPARE STEPS OF FAITH!! This is absurd. It is like saying…..well, it’s like saying exactly what you have just said! You have just claimed that “we all take steps of faith(as opposed to reason), but my step of faith is better because….[and you give a reason]” !!!
    Do you understand what I’m saying here? I do realise that you may want to play a “faith based on evidence”-esque card here. But, well, the naturalist can claim the same; that he has faith that naturalism explains everything, and he bases this faith on evidence.
    This is the problem at the heart of your(pl) worldviews. You criticise naturalists for just taking things on faith; as given, and then think that it is somehow so much more erudite and wise to postulate unverifiable and unfalsifiable entities (to formulate an erudite and wise explanation) which you then have to take on faith anyway!
    Cut out the middle man, dude! Lol. We’re both physicists. If a person claimed that there were invisible, undetectable monkeys flying round everywhere pushing all the atoms to make them do what they do you’d think they were insane. But what would you do if they claimed that the regular physics story was vacuous: “how do you know why the atoms move by the rules that they do, I have a much superior explanation as to why: monkeys!” The only thing to fall back on is verification, falsification. It is simply absurd to postulate undetectable monkeys to explain why the laws of physics are as they are. Besides, it only pushes the problem on: whence the monkeys? You would of course want to know why monkeys solve a problem at all; how they sensibly explain physics. But what disturbs me the most is that there is a real life situation thousands of times more challenging to you than these monkeys with a how story almost identical to your own. Other religions. Not only do they have a fully crystallised metaphysical explanation for things – as opposed to invisible monkeys – but their explanations look almost exactly like your own!

  8. Damian
    Damian says:

    Simon, I’m just commenting to let you know that I’ve been following your conversations and I love your clarity in an area where obfuscation typically seems to be an art. Do you have a blog of your own or any recommended sites or other reading?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] case came to mind recently when reading a post by Rob at Thinking Matters (a local Christian Apologetics site). He describes how as a science […]

  2. […] New Demonstration added an interesting post today on Sir Harry Kroto, Science and Faith : Thinking Matters TalkHere’s a small readingIt’d be like me expecting some BChristian/B’s talk about say, environmental issues, to convince me about Christianity. […]

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