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Has origin-of-life research reached an impasse?

That’s exactly what John Horgan suggests. Writing for Scientific American, the science journalist argues that, twenty years since he first wrote about the topic, atheistic explanations have not moved any closer to establishing how life first emerged.

Professor Edgar Andrews reviews The Grand Design

The following review has been kindly provided to Thinking Matters by Edgar Andrews, Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and author of the highly recommended Who Made God?: Searching for a Theory of Everything (read our review here). Professor Andrews is an international expert on the science of large molecules and has published well over 100 scientific research papers and books. For a good introduction to his work, listen to Brian Auten’s interview with him at Apologetics315.

The Grand Design?

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking sold over nine million copies of his book A Brief History of Time. Now, 22 years later, he has co-authored The Grand Design which immediately hit the No.1 spot in the New York Times best-seller list. But the sequel is so inferior to the prequel in intellectual quality that a reviewer in The Times Saturday Review (11 September 2010) writes: ‘It reads like a stretched magazine article … there is too much padding and too much recycling of long-stale material… I doubt whether The Grand Design would have been published if Hawking’s name were not on the cover’.

So why is the new book a runaway best-seller? Because it claims that science makes God redundant. Let’s take a closer look at the claims advanced in The Grand Design.

Philosophical skulduggery

The introduction asserts that ‘Philosophy is dead’ (p.5) and science alone can provide ‘New answers to the ultimate questions of life’ (the book’s hubristic sub-title). But the authors then produce their own brand of humanistic philosophy, christen it ‘science’ and base their book upon it.

They say; ‘this book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism which implies … that there are no miracles, or exceptions to the laws of nature’. But ‘scientific determinism’ is simply the philosophical assumption that the laws control all events. I argue precisely the opposite in chapter 11 of my own book Who made God? (WMG in further references).

Again, in chapter 3, They maintain that ‘reality’ is a construct of our minds — implying that there is no such thing as objective reality (Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley had the same idea in 1710 but he wasn’t widely believed). They conclude that ‘there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality’ and propose what they call ‘model dependent realism’ as a ‘frame-work with which to interpret modern science’ (pp. 42-43). Clearly, an interpretive framework for science cannot be science but belongs in a different category altogether, namely, philosophy.

Since the mental models we construct ‘are the only reality we can know … It follows then that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own’ (p.172). The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines the very concept of reality. Hawking’s ‘reality’ excludes God while my ‘reality’ majors upon God. These two ‘realities’ are mutually exclusive but both (according to Hawking) are equally ‘real’. This is postmodernism by the back door and it is wholly inimical to science, which depends on there being a genuine reality to investigate.

Determinism

 

The authors also embrace another philosophy, namely, scientific determinism. ‘Though we feel we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets’ (pp.31-32). So we are mindless automatons and everything we do or think is predetermined.

The reality is, of course, that biological processes are overwhelmingly ‘governed’ not by physics and chemistry but by structured information, stored on DNA and expressed through the genetic code. It is information which controls the physics and chemistry of the living cell, not the other way round.

Furthermore, if our minds are simply by-products of molecular processes in the brain, then all our thoughts are meaningless including the authors’ own theories. Thinking atheists such as Bertrand Russell and J. B. S. Haldane long ago recognised and admitted this dilemma explicitly (WMG chapter 16) but Hawking and Mlodinow seem oblivious to it.

Chapter 4 is devoted to explaining the ‘many histories’ formulation of quantum theory proposed by Richard Feynman. This is well done except that by ignoring other formulations of quantum theory the authors give the false impression that Feynman’s is the only valid approach. This is tendentious because they need Feynman’s idea as a springboard for their own multiverse hypothesis. To admit that ‘many histories’ is just one of several equally valid formulations of quantum mechanics would weaken their argument considerably.

Mighty M-theory

Chapter 5 surveys the development of physics during the past 200 years, including general relativity (which describes the large-scale behaviour of the universe) and quantum mechanics (which describes its microscopic behaviour). Although containing nothing new, this is by far the best part of this book.

The chapter concludes, however, with comments on M-theory that rang alarm bells (p.118). In the book’s opening chapter, M-theory is no more than ‘a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists’, and is ‘not a theory in the usual sense’ but ‘may offer answers to the question of creation’. Physicist Lee Smolin is doubtful: ‘… we still do not know what M-theory is, or whether there is any theory deserving of the name’ (The Trouble with Physics, Allen Lane 2007, p.146). Indeed, on p.117 the authors themselves admit that ‘people are still trying to decipher the nature of M-theory, but that may not be possible’.

But suddenly on p.118 this intractable mathematical model is somehow transformed into a theory so powerful that its laws are ‘more fundamental’ than the laws of nature and ‘allow’ for ‘different universes with different apparent laws’. This is a huge leap of atheistic faith.

Witches brew

The final three chapters rapidly descend into a witches brew of speculation and misinformation, confusingly blended with normal science. It certainly gave me a mental hangover — and I am no stranger to the territory. It is difficult to discern where science ends and speculation begins, but the key reasoning seem to be as follows.

1. The ‘big bang’ model predicts that the universe began life as such a tiny object that quantum theory must be applied to its origin (p.131). But hold on a moment! Quantum theory has only been validated under normal conditions of space, time, pressure, temperature and so on. We cannot know whether it applies to the supposed conditions at the origin of the universe, when space was intensely warped, time was at best fuzzy, and the pressure and temperature both approached infinity. What we do know is that massive objects do not exhibit quantum behaviour. No one can be sure that a new-born universe would obey quantum theory as we know it.

2.  ‘In the early universe all four dimension [of space-time] behave like space’ allowing us to ‘get rid of the problem of time having a beginning’ (pp.134-135). But if time and space were equivalent, and time did not begin, then space didn’t begin either! The universe was still-born. In fact the authors are appealing to the ‘no-boundary’ model described by Hawking 22 years ago in A Brief History of Time but are economical with the truth. The earlier book makes it clear that the model is valid only in imaginary time, not in real time (see WMG p.121). But here this caveat vanishes and imaginary time is misrepresented as real time.

The narrative then descends into farce. They claim that ‘the realisation that time behaves like space … means that the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and doesn’t need to be set in motion by some god’ (p.135). So apparently the universe did ‘begin’ after all, but not in time. Confused? Me too.

3. Picturing the early universe as a quantum particle (something they themselves describe as ‘tricky’) the authors consider how it might evolve from point (state) A to point (state) B by applying Feynman’s sum-over-histories method thus:

‘[Since we are considering the beginning of the universe] there is no point A, so we add up all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and end at the universe we observe today. In this view the universe appears spontaneously, starting off in every possible way. Most of these correspond to other universes.’

But by saying that point A does not exist they assume that the universe springs into existence somewhere between nothing (point A) and the present universe (point B). This tells us nothing about how or why the universe began; simply that it did begin. We knew that already.

4. Finally, p.180 does offer an explanation of spontaneous creation. The conservation of energy means that universes can only be created from nothing if their net energy is zero, with negative gravitational energy balancing out the positive energy of matter and radiation. This necessitates that a law of gravity must exist. Because a law of gravity exists it must and will of itself create universes out of nothing (no reasoning given).

So gravity is God. Unfortunately the authors have no time to tell us who created gravity (earlier they rule out God because no one could explain who created him). Nor can they tell us why matter and gravity should pop out of nothing, except to argue that ‘nothing’ undergoes quantum fluctuations. However, this requires that (like gravity) the laws of quantum mechanics pre-existed the universe and that ‘nothing’ possesses the properties of normal space, which is part of the created order and cannot be its antecedent.

A grand design? Only in the sense that this book is grandly designed to bamboozle the unwary and cloak atheistic philosophy in the garb of science. Fortunately, the clothes don’t fit.

Did quantum fluctuations create the universe?

Given the discussion raised by Stephen Hawking’s latest book, some of our readers might find this reply, posted by Professor Edgar Andrews on an Amazon.co.uk discussion thread, useful:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”none” text_align=”left”]

“Nobody made evolution. It arises as a natural and inescapable consequence of the laws of nature in the universe in which we find ourselves, which themselves are a natural and inescapable consequence of the completely random quantum fluctuation which caused the big bang, at which point the “laws” of causality break down so it is meaningless to enquire who or what caused that.”

“But that really doesn’t wash, does it? In the same breath you say the big bang was caused by quantum fluctuations and then claim that it is meaningless to enquire what caused the big bang. That may be post-modernism but it certainly isn’t logic (or physics for that matter). But there are deeper fallacies with your explanations, as follows:

1) The laws of nature, you say, are the “inescapable consequences” of “completely random quantum fluctuations”. By what logic can inescapable consequences arise from random events? Random events can only lead to contingent consequences but to be “inescapable” the consequences cannot be contingent but must be determinate (necessary).

2) For the laws of nature to be a “consequence” of anything, the principle of causality must operate. Without causality there can be neither causes nor consequences. But you then tell us that back beyond the big bang the laws of causality break down. You really cannot have it both ways.

3) You say the big bang was “caused” by “random quantum fluctuations”. Quite apart from reinforcing my last point by invoking causality prior to the existence of the cosmos, you have to answer a different question … fluctuations in what? Before the big bang there existed neither matter, energy, space nor time, so by definition there could be no fluctuations in any of these entities. (If you claim there was something of a material nature “there” before the big bang, we are no longer talking about the ultimate origin of the universe).

3) Next comes another question. Are not quantum fluctuations themselves a manifestation of natural law (e.g. the laws of quantum mechanics)? How then could quantum fluctuations be the ultimate cause of natural law as you claim? Did the laws governing quantum fluctuation invent themselves? Not even Stephen Hawking believes that.”[/pk_box]

Edgar Andrews is the Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and author of the excellent book, Who Made God? Searching for a Theory of Everything. Who Made God? is available from Amazon and New Zealand bookstores (Grace & Truth Publications has copies available for $24 NZD).

Stephen Hawking, God, and the Origin of the Universe

The controversial claims of Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, have been hitting headlines and igniting debate. In an article at The Wall Street Journal, adapted from his book, Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow) writes:

“As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Spontaneous creation may not be all that new as a theory for the origin of the universe but with an advocate such as Hawking behind them, all that changes. But what of the responses? Although The Grand Design isn’t out yet (and the provocative nature of his statements will no doubt further heighten anticipation), some have addressed Hawking’s incipient claims:

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, offers some thoughts in a piece for The Daily Mail:

“As both a scientist and a Christian, I would say that Hawking’s claim is misguided. He asks us to choose between God and the laws of physics, as if they were necessarily in mutual conflict.

But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.”

James Anderson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, writes on his blog:

“If Hawking really has proven that the laws of nature are logically necessary, that would be a stupendous scientific breakthrough: a dead cert for a Nobel prize. But then why didn’t he publish it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal rather than a popular science book  (as The Grand Design appears to be)? Furthermore, if the laws of nature really are logically necessary then our knowledge of them couldn’t be based on empirical observation (despite what we’ve always thought) because empirical observations cannot in principle establish necessary truths (such as the laws of logic and the laws of arithmetic). Our observations can only tell us what actually is the case and not what must be the case.

If Hawking thinks there is some law or principle that explains the very existence of the universe, he must have in mind a metaphysical law rather than a physical law. Unless I’m much mistaken, the law of gravity is a physical law. It appears that Hawking intends to leave behind physics (a subject on which he is eminently qualified to speak) and enter the realm of metaphysics (a subject on which he has no particular expertise, so far as I know). It’s more than a little ironic therefore to find Hawking declaring on the very first page of his new book that “philosophy is dead.” If philosophy is dead, why is Hawking now turning his hand to philosophy? No, philosophy is in very good health, despite its frequent mistreatment at the hands of scientists.”

Moral Truth Matters

“Obviously the project of moral persuasion is very difficult — but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right and wrong about questions of morality or about questions of human values . . .

There are impediments . . . the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people — certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists — have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil.

My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. The first thing I should point out is that, apart from being untrue, this view has consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

But, of course, it has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conception of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.”

Sam Harris at the Edge Conference: “The New Science of Morality”

If you’re living in Auckland, don’t forget our event next week with Glenn Peoples addressing Sam Harris’ claims about science and morality.

Questions answered on the role of evidence

A while back the blogger Ken Perrott asked of me a series of questions on the role of evidence and its relation to the what makes acceptable belief. The following are the answers I promised I would eventually get to when final assignments were in and exams were over.

Q: Do you accept the key role of interaction with reality and validation of any conclusions against reality?

(I have confirmed with Ken that by “reality” he means the mind-independent world. He and I share this definition.)

A: Yes, we should be testing hypotheses according the best methods we have available. Yes, this testing plays a key role in verification. 

The question is, overall, a little unclear, so let me clearly affirm the hypothetico-deductive method as very useful in scientific investigation.

Q: Do you accept that this should be a social process open to critique from colleagues?

A: Yes. I also accept this is an excellent way for curtailing errors, and for public confidence. However, I do not accept this critique is a truth-making property.

What do I mean by that? I mean that just because something is passed by a community who were involved at critiquing it does not mean the truth of that something is guaranteed.

Now, why do I say that? First, its an informal fallacy, specifically called an appeal to authority. The truth of any opinion, hypothesis, model, theory, explanation, etc., is unrelated to a persons beliefs about it, no matter who that person is or how qualified they are. Second, authorities – even peer-reviewed papers – in the history of science have later been found to have passed or believed conclusions that were wrong.

Q: Do you accept that logic/argument alone is worthless without validation?

(I’m not sure what the question is getting at here. What does “logic/argument” refer to precisely? And worthless for what exactly? As a basis for living? As a basis for research? One should expect different tests for different purposes. I’m going to take a gamble and respond to the following interpretation, “Do you accept that logical arguments are worthless without validation?”)

A: Logical arguments are already valid. Think about it – if they weren’t valid they’d be illogical arguments. 

We can validate the premises of an argument with several methods, including the discovery of physical-evidence, our store of past experiences, scientific testing, etc. 

Before these premises are validated, are logical arguments worthless? No, I don’t think so. Ken continually goes on about how in science we can test our theories “against reality.” So if he admits that science proceeds on uncertainty, it’s curious as to why he’d require a premise from an argument be validated as true for certain before the argument is considered worth anything. 

Here are some other reasons why a premise is worthwhile even if it is not validated. (1) Unvalidated premises can provide a conceptual basis to formulate hypotheses. (2) Unvalidated premises can be held provisionally until such time as they receive evidentiary support. This means scientific thought and speculation can proceed in advance of time-consuming lab work or expensive testing procedures. (3) Provisional premises can provide conclusions which can be used as premises in a “second-level” logical arguments which can be tested. (4) (i) If logical arguments were truly worthless without evidentiary validation we should never believe in high-level theoretical entities (such as quarks, black holes, or an early inflationary period in the history of the universe), which are in-principle unable to be empirically detected. (ii) Even low-level theoretical entities (such as ice-age glaciers and dinosaurs) would be ruled out as unbelievable if all premises in logical arguments had to be validated with certainty before they were worth anything – like believing. 

The Point?

Now, exactly what the point was by asking me these questions is unknown to me. Why Ken should want to know my opinion is quite odd. Almost as odd as why he felt the need to ask these particular question in the first place, when I have (with the possible exception of the third question) never explicitly or implicitly (to my knowledge at least) denied these things. The context in which these questions emerged was Ken’s blog “Theological intrusions into science,” which made out it was responding to my article “Are logical arguments evidence?” (In fact, it was not a response to my article. It was a response to one paragraph of my article – and a paragraph not vital to the purpose of that article. It began by misstating of my position and went on to waffle about appropriate belief forming methodology. I have detailed his misreading of that article in the comments to “Are logical arguments evidence?”.) From this I suspect that Ken holds the mistaken belief that I “denigrate the value of evidence and validation.” Which is completely wrong.

Ken guards jealously the methods of scientific discovery and proclaims science as a superior way of knowing to any other. He also takes a special interest in those who appear to be, in his opinion, anti-science. But I’m not in any way anti-science. This, I hope, is demonstrated by my forthright answers to his questions above. And neither are others that Ken claims are anti-science for that matter. A possible caveat.

If disagreeing with, or reserving judgment on, certain scientific beliefs that Ken and others who agree with him is being “anti-science”, then I guess I am according to that definition. But if thats the case, I would respectfully suggest that it is Ken who is actually closer to being anti-science. Why? Several reasons, but here is the main one:

In order for science to succeed it requires free enquiry and should allow others the freedom to question or reserve definitive judgments. Some of the greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. When Ken and many of his regular commenters shout down those honest enough to say, “I don’t know if thats really the case,” or bold enough to say “I have a critique of this hypothesis,” and “I think this different hypothesis should be considered thoughtfully,” then he is curtailing or discouraging free enquiry, which is much closer to being anti-science.

Its ironic that the defender so easily becomes the destroyer of what he originally sought to protect.

Can we Love Jesus and Accept Evolution?

James Anderson, assistant professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, reviews “I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution”, the latest book by Denis Lamoureux:

“A full critique of Lamoureux’s evolutionary creationism cannot be given here. I will, however, indicate some of the major reasons why I don’t find his arguments compelling. In the first place, his approach to interpreting Scripture is highly problematic. He professes to acknowledge both the “Book of God’s Works” (revelation in nature) and the “Book of God’s Words” (revelation in Scripture) but it’s clear that he gives the former unqualified priority over the latter; if there is any apparent conflict between nature (for which read: modern science) and the Bible, Lamoureux concludes that the Bible is mistaken due to its accommodation to ancient science. On this way of thinking, the Bible must always be judged in the light of modern science. Yet this prioritization is the very opposite of the view that Christians have historically taken on the issue. As Calvin famously put it, the Bible functions like a pair of spectacles given to correct the distortion of natural revelation by our fallen intellects. Scripture has authority over science, whether ancient or modern.

Furthermore, Lamoureux’s separation of theological statements and scientific statements in the Bible is impossible to apply in practice. Take, for instance, the claim that God judged the world by sending a great flood (cf. 2 Peter 3:6). Is that a theological statement or a scientific statement? On the face of it, it’s both—at the very least, it has theological elements and scientific elements that cannot be teased apart.

A further concern is raised by Lamoureux’s central claim that the Bible is accommodated to ancient science and therefore makes scientific statements that are false. Why think that the accommodation only pertains to science? Why not suppose, for much the same reasons, that the Bible is accommodated to ancient morality too? Indeed, that’s precisely the argument used by many liberal theologians today who argue that Christianity is compatible with monogamous homosexual relationships. If Lamoureux wouldn’t accept their position, why should we accept his? What do modern scientists have that modern ethicists don’t?

The point can be pushed further still. If the Bible is accommodated to the fallible scientific outlook of its original audience, perhaps it is also accommodated to their fallible religious outlook. Perhaps all those claims in the New Testament regarding Christ’s substitutionary atonement are merely a concession to the religious outlook of ancient people who were used to thinking in terms of animal sacrifices, propitiatory atonement, and so forth. Presumably those claims would be no more immune to error than the Bible’s scientific claims. But then how much confidence could we place in the gospel message preached by the apostles?

The point is this: accommodationist theories of biblical inspiration such as Lamoureux’s are like a universal acid that burns its way through everything. Once we argue that the Bible is unreliable in one area (science) due to its accommodation to ancient ignorance, we can have no principled basis for insisting that it is still reliable—never mind inerrant—in other areas such as ethics and theology.

So much for Lamoureux’s doctrine of Scripture. What about his scientific arguments? I’ve noted already some of the weaknesses in his case: circular reasoning, selective evidence, and conclusions that go far beyond what the empirical data support. Equally problematic is the fact that he doesn’t even mention, let alone address, some of the many significant scientific difficulties faced by the theory that all living organisms have gradually evolved from rudimentary life forms by purely natural processes (e.g., the lack of a plausible mechanism for large-scale evolutionary development, the so-called “Cambrian explosion” in the fossil record, the origin of sexual differentiation, and the existence of irreducibly complex biological structures). The uninformed reader will almost certainly be misled into thinking that the scientific case for evolution is beyond question. Still, perhaps we should cut Lamoureux some slack on this point. After all, if the biblical authors can be excused their misleading or false statements on the basis that they were captive to the science-of-the-day, presumably so can he!

Finally, I suspect many evangelical readers will be unconvinced by Lamoureux’s plea that his position preserves all the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He speaks several times of “non-negotiable” Christian beliefs, but never explains what criteria he uses for treating some traditional Christian beliefs as non-negotiable and others as dispensable. One can’t help but suspect that his list of essential doctrines is rigged so that his own views fall safely within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Lamoureux’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin, which follows of necessity from his rejection of the historical Adam and Eve, is particularly problematic. If Adam never existed then obviously no human being could have inherited a sinful nature from him. Lamoureux suggests that this traditional doctrine originated with Augustine (who was, of course, misled by the science-of-the-day) but he fails to acknowledge that Augustine argued his position from Scripture. What Lamoureux recommends in place of the traditional doctrine might be dubbed “Original Sin Lite” (or perhaps “Original Sin Zero”): every human being is a sinner and that’s all we need to affirm. Yet surely this falls far short of the doctrine taught in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, which offers both a coherent theological explanation for universal human sinfulness and a profound parallel (and contrast) between Adam and Jesus. It’s remarkable that Lamoureux makes no reference to these passages in his discussion of original sin, and his treatments elsewhere in the book require him to hold these texts at arm’s length. One has to wonder whether he would have so quickly concluded that Adam is a dispensable mythical figure had he been more exposed to the Reformed tradition in his theological studies. There is far more at stake here than whether Paul was mistaken in certain incidental historical facts.

I have to conclude that despite its irenic approach and the undoubted expertise of its author, this book fails in its goal of reconciling biblical Christianity with modern evolutionary science. Nevertheless, it is very useful in this respect: it makes clear what price has to be paid in order to make peace with evolution, even if one takes a relatively conservative approach. The first casualties are the doctrines of biblical authority, clarity, and inerrancy, closely followed by the doctrine of original sin; and once those are sacrificed it’s inevitable that more will follow, for no doctrine is an island. The doctrines of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone, to cite two examples, are intimately connected to the nature of the fall and its consequences.”

Read the whole thing here (or an abridged version at Discerning Reader here).

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Book Review: Who Made God?

Posted on behalf of Michael Drake.

Who Made God? is a witty, stimulating and very readable explanation of the discoveries of modern science, exhibiting the marvels of God’s creation and exposing the inconsistency of attempts to explain the universe in terms of atheism and evolution.

More than making important and obtuse concepts of modern science delightfully comprehensible in memorable imagery of daily life, Edgar Andrews silences on its own terms the challenge of atheistic scepticism and points readers to the truth and sufficiency of the Bible and faith in Christ as a framework – the only adequate framework – in which to think.

Here is a readable and informative response by an internationally respected scientist to claims that atheistic science can explain everything.  Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London, Andrews outlines with clarity and humour significant scientific constructs that describe how our universe functions.  As he does that, he shows their usefulness and consistency with observable data, while exposing their inconsistencies and inadequacies in explaining the totality of everything.  In particular Andrews renders in stark clarity the failure of the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, et al) to explain the order and origins of the material and immaterial universe.

Against that he sets out what he calls the “hypothesis of God”.  One of new-atheism’s fallacies of debating the existence of God is its failure to define its terms.  Andrews shows that when the Bible’s definition of God as creator and sustainer of the universe is used, the observable data fits, and does so with a consistency and comprehensiveness that evolutionary atheism can never sustain.

Andrews’ last chapter highlights the inevitable and necessary conclusion to the data examined: God must exist, and does exist as the unmade maker and sustainer of everything.   But more than this, the moral argument for God exposes our inescapable need of God and his redemption in Christ.  So he closes with a personal affirmation of the grace he has found in the Saviour, and commendation of the Gospel of John as the next thing readers should turn to.

That last chapter aside, the first six chapters may be the most important contemporary writing anyone can be encouraged to read.  Neither those nor the latter chapters are always easy reading.  From the start Andrews warns that some of the science is challenging.  He encourages readers to persevere: it may be necessary to read some sections two or three times, but that is worth the effort.  Yet it is not so much how those first chapters induct readers into the theories of modern science, but how they introduce readers to a methodology of thinking about anything.  These chapters, taken on their own, are an accessible and engaging introduction to biblical epistemology.

The book is well printed, well presented and well bound: it can be given to others without apology and will keep its shape and appearance through many readings.  Each chapter is introduced with a short summary and vocabulary that, much like a road-map, helps navigate through the detail that might otherwise distract or discourage.  The summaries would make great starters for family, class or group discussion.  Who Made God? is possibly the most useful introduction to modern science a non-scientist could read, and because of the inter-disciplinary breadth of theory and experimental science canvassed, any well informed scientist will also likely profit from reading it.

My only criticism is that in making a passing comment to his reconciling the “big bang theory” with what he asserts is the Genesis 1 record of “genuine history” in an “epic poem”[1] with “clearly historical” intent (p106), Andrews unnecessarily introduces potential for doubt about Genesis.  He explains briefly that he considers Genesis 1:1 as describing the creation of the heavens and the earth in an unspecified period of time, with the following verses providing the subsequent geo-centric creative work of God.  This brief comment may cause more confusion than need be: it might have been better to have left it out or to have given it more explanation.  In both Who Made God? and his earlier From Nothing to Nature he stresses commitment to the historicity and accuracy of Genesis 1.  In From Nothing to Nature he commits to creation in six days each having a morning and an evening, while at the same time expressing belief in the very long periods of time the “big bang” presupposes.[2] Confused?  Unfortunately, that is where this brief discussion can leave the reader; yet in the context of so much excellence this should not discourage the reading of Who Made God?

I had to be persuaded to read Who Made God? I found neither the title nor the prospect of reading another pedantic, ill-informed point-scoring and petty discussion of the creation-evolution debate at all enticing.  I could not have been more mistaken.  Before I had finished the first chapter I found myself enjoying a book that informed, stimulated and challenged, and in which neither the science nor the theology is superficial or dull.  I have been passing out copies to friends and colleagues, commending to them what I believe will prove to be a lasting work in popular science, biblical theology, and devotional Christianity.

Feminist writer Fay Weldon describes it as “thoughtful, readable, witty, [and] wise.”  David Kim of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York says Andrews writes a “nuanced and compelling argument that maintains the integrity of both science and theology.”  Those comments are true but understated.  This is a great book.

Michael Drake is the principal of Carey College in Panmure and a pastor at Tamaki Reformed Baptist Church. He has been involved in advocacy for Christian schools throughout New Zealand and in raising issues about race, education, and Christianity before Parliament. He is also an Associate Chaplain at the Manukau Institute of Technology. Recently, Michael participated at our Thinking Matters Forum at Auckland University.


Notes

[1] But Genesis 1 is Hebrew narrative and bears none of the marks of Hebrew poetry (cf Robert Alter The Art of Biblical Poetry Basic Books 1985 p117).

[2] In From Nothing to Nature Andrews unequivocally asserts that “Genesis is a history book” and that “the Bible is true and can be trusted in all matters.” (p105f)   He reads Genesis 1:1 as describing a “first” day of creation (which “lasted much longer than the other six days of creation, because, unlike them, this day was not measured as the time between morning and evening).  In that first day God made the heavens and the earth before beginning the subsequent six days of creative work with regard to the already created earth.  For example, having made the moon and sun in the first day one, “He could still have put them in the sky on day four.” (p109) As to those days having morning and evening, and therefore being clearly days, he argues that possible natural explanations could include such things as the earth rotating at a much slower speed than at present.   Andrews acknowledges that this special pleading enables him to integrate the “big bang” with a literal (sort of) interpretation of Genesis.  He is however quick to point out that it is valid to interpret the Genesis days as 24 hour periods, albeit such an interpretation cannot accommodate the “big bang”.  In Who Made God? Andrews insists on a rigorous consistency in extrapolating scientific theory from observable data; a similar rigour in examining the literature of the biblical text would suggest that a) accommodation of the “big bang” to the Genesis text is neither necessary nor sufficient, and b) the inducement to such an accommodation arises not internally from the text but from external sources unrelated to the text.  In any case, the literary form of Genesis makes the most natural interpretation of verse 1 an introduction that is developed and explained in the following verses, meaning that the entire creation process took place within the six days Andrews agrees are truly days.   (cf Edward J Young Studies in Genesis One Baker, Grand Rapids 1973)

Has Science Disproved God?

This March, Thinking Matters is coordinating two events at Auckland University with the Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship. We’re excited about the speakers that we’ve organized and are really looking forward to the discussion over two great nights. The events are open to both university students and the public, so if you’re in Auckland, come and join us.

Here are the details for the first event (theatre locations will be announced in the next few days). The second event (Christianity on Trial) will occur in the following week (head over to this page to get the full information for that event).

The Thinking Matters Forum

Has Science Disproved God?

Time: 7pm, Thursday March 11
Location: OGGB4
Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Road, The University of Auckland

Have the discoveries of modern science proved that belief in God is irrational and untenable? Does faith hinder or inspire scientific research? In this public Q and A event, several of New Zealand’s top scientists and Christian thinkers come together to examine the claims of popular atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, and explore the the credibility of God in the context of cosmology, biology, and physics.

Speakers:

  • Neil Broom (PhD) is Professor and Head of the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at The University of Auckland. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2008 and is the author of the book How Blind Is the Watchmaker?: Nature’s Design & the Limits of Naturalistic Science.
  • Jeff Tallon (PhD) is Distinguished Scientist at Industrial Research Ltd and a former Professor of Physics at Victoria University. He is internationally known for his research in high-temperature superconductors, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2002 was awarded the Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science award.
  • Robert Mann (PhD) previously taught biochemistry and environmental studies at the UoA and and has been on the council of the NZ Association of Scientists.
  • Matthew Flannagan (PhD) lectures in the History of Philosophy at Laidlaw College and specializes in applied ethics and the interface between philosophy and theology. He is a prominent New Zealand Christian thinker, debater and blogger.

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Update: For those who weren’t able to attend the event, here is the audio: Thinking Matters Forum: Has Science Disproved God? (Right-click and “save as” to download the file)

Thinking Matters Forum at Auckland University

This March, Thinking Matters is coordinating two events at Auckland University with the Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship. We’re excited about the speakers that we’ve organized and are really looking forward to the discussion over two great nights. The events are open to both university students and the public, so if you’re in Auckland, come and join us.

Here are the details. We’ll announce the theatre locations this week.

The Thinking Matters Forum

Has Science Disproved God?

Time: 7pm, Thursday March 11
Location: OGGB4
Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Road, The University of Auckland

Have the discoveries of modern science proved that belief in God is irrational and untenable? Does faith hinder or inspire scientific research? In this public Q and A event, several of New Zealand’s top scientists and Christian thinkers come together to examine the claims of popular atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, and explore the the credibility of God in the context of cosmology, biology, and physics.

Speakers:

  • Neil Broom (PhD) is Professor and Head of the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at The University of Auckland. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2008 and is the author of the book How Blind Is the Watchmaker?: Nature’s Design & the Limits of Naturalistic Science.
  • Jeff Tallon (PhD) is Distinguished Scientist at Industrial Research Ltd and a former Professor of Physics at Victoria University. He is internationally known for his research in high-temperature superconductors, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2002 was awarded the Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science award.
  • Robert Mann (PhD) previously taught biochemistry and environmental studies at the UoA and and has been on the council of the NZ Association of Scientists.
  • Matthew Flannagan (PhD) lectures in the History of Philosophy at Laidlaw College and specializes in applied ethics and the interface between philosophy and theology. He is a prominent New Zealand Christian thinker, debater and blogger.

Support this event on Facebook

Christianity On Trial

Time: 7pm, Tuesday March 16
Location: 260 – 098
Owen G Glenn Building, 12 Grafton Road, The University of Auckland

Today, many best-selling atheists argue that belief in God is delusional and a roadblock to political, moral, and scientific progress. In this public Q and A event, several of New Zealand’s top Christian thinkers come together to consider popular arguments against Christianity and whether belief in God is merely a consequence of superstition and credulity.

Speakers:

  • Jeff Tallon (PhD) is Distinguished Scientist at Industrial Research Ltd and a former Professor of Physics at Victoria University. He is internationally known for his research in high-temperature superconductors, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2002 was awarded the Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science award.
  • Matthew Flannagan (PhD) lectures in the History of Philosophy at Laidlaw College and specializes in applied ethics and the interface between philosophy and theology. He is a prominent New Zealand Christian thinker, debater and blogger.
  • Michael Drake (DipTeach) is the principal of Carey College in Panmure and a pastor of the Tamaki Reformed Baptist Church. He has been involved in advocacy for Christian schools and in raising issues about race, education, and Christianity before Parliament. He is also a TSCF Associate Chaplain at the Manukau Institute of Technology.
  • Joe Fleener (MDiv) lectures in Old Testament, Church History, Christian Worldview, Apologetics, and Christian Ethics at The Shepherd’s Bible College.

Support this event on Facebook.

The Thinking Matters Forums are organised by an interdenominational group of Christians dedicated to addressing the difficult questions about faith, truth and life. Our website can be viewed at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz

UPDATE (1/03/2010): The location for the second lecture has been confirmed.

Atheist philosopher slammed for endorsing Meyer's book on Intelligent Design

Thomas Nagel’s recent endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Signature in the Cell (2009), has generated a firestorm of debate. In the Times Literary Supplement, the atheist philosopher and professor at New York University, wrote:

“Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.”

Nagel’s positive review provoked instant outrage from his fellow atheists. While Nagel has been critical of scientific naturalism in the past, the recommendation of Meyer’s book as one of the years’ best brought fierce condemnation in the blogosphere and beyond. Brian Leiter has described him as a disgrace and more, while Stephen Fletcher, a chemist and professor at Loughborough University, is simply incredulous:

“The belief that we share this planet with supernatural beings is an old one. Students of magic and religion have identified innumerable varieties of them – gods, devils, pixies, fairies, you name it. A familiar motif is that they operate at the very fringes of perception. While the scullery maid sleeps, they are busy in the kitchen making the milk go sour. For a society with no concept of bacteria, this is, perhaps, a forgivable conceit. But for a modern university professor to take this idea seriously is, I think, mind-blowing.”

Thomas Nagel has responded to Fletcher, in a letter to the Times,

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer’s conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

But not all are critical of Nagel. Bradley Morton disagrees with Leiter and has more sympathy for Nagel’s comments. John Walton, a chemist and professor at the University of St Andrews has come to Nagel’s (and Meyer’s) defense. Walton, also writing to the Times:

Sir, – The resilience of the “prebiotic soup” myth, in spite of torrents of counter-evidence, is truly astonishing. Even professionals such as Stephen Fletcher (Letters, December 4), criticizing Thomas Nagel’s recommendation of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (Books of the Year, November 27), apparently still believe in it. Fletcher asserts that “Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record”.

Actually the operation of neoDarwinian natural selection depends on the prior existence of entities capable of self-replication. Variants are produced in their genetic material by mutations, the variants are copied by the organism’s biochemical machinery, and then natural selection ensures the most “fit” survive. Before the arrival of organisms capable of reproduction, this process could not operate. In the words of the renowned evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms”. It follows that, even in principle, some quite different explanation is required to account for the origin of life. Fletcher is pinning his hopes on a supposed RNA world. He tells us: “Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid)”.

It is an amusing irony that while castigating students of religion for believing in the supernatural, he offers in its place an entirely imaginary “RNA world” the only support for which is speculation! Intense laboratory research has failed to produce even one nucleotide (RNA component) under geologically plausible conditions. As for the chains of nucleotides required for the RNA world, there are insuperable problems associated with their information content, as well as the chemical selectivity needed for their assembly. Furthermore, the earth’s oldest Precambrian rocks show very good evidence that life was present from the start, so the half-billion years Fletcher counts on were actually not available for chemical evolution.

Rather than just kowtowing to the creaky naturalist “prebiotic soup” scenario, Meyer engages with the whole range of origin of life problems. Anyone interested in discovering where the evidence leads will find this a fascinating book.

JOHN C. WALTON
School of Chemistry, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews.

Evolutionary Biologist Argues for the Scientific Accuracy of Genesis

GenesisZoologist and Royal Society University Research Fellow at Oxford University, Andrew Parker has written a new book arguing that there are significant parallels between the Genesis account of creation and discoveries in contemporary science. Parker specializes in the evolution of vision and is one of the eight “Scientists for a New Century” selected by the Royal Institution.  His previous book,  In the Blink Of An Eye: How Vision Sparked the Big Bang Of Evolution, defended the idea that the Cambrian explosion was triggered by the evolution of vision in simple organisms. Parker is no friend of either special creationism or intelligent design but has come to recognise the limits of science and even reject agnosticism. In his latest book, The Genesis Enigma, Parker grapples with the dilemma that the Genesis account has no right to be correct. Because the author or authors could not have known the sequence of evolutionary stages that science has come to recognize, Parker argues that Genesis must be the product of divine inspiration.

Here is what Ray Olson, reviewer at Booklist, says of The Genesis Enigma:

“Raised without religion, biologist Parker had his curiosity piqued by responses to his book, In the Blink of an Eye, about his major scientific contribution, the light-switch theory, which contends that the evolution of vision spurred the explosion of life-forms in the Cambrian period, 520 million years ago. His correspondents suggested that his theory put the final link in place between the account contemporary science gives of the world’s development and that related by the first chapter of Genesis. This book is considered his response to that suggestion. Chapter by chapter, he relates the stages of cosmological development and evolution to the seven stages of Creation in Genesis 1, from “Let there be light” – the concretion of the sun – to the debut of birds, which defied the rule (i.e., the reign) of vision over the cycle of predation on which all life depends (birds are uniquely able to flee predators). Read metaphorically, Genesis 1 is a scientifically sound outline. Each of Parker’s chapters, though sprung from a biblical statement, proceeds to chronicle two processes, that of how science thinks the earth and life developed and that of the scientists who forged the theories and obtained the facts that enable and confirm science’s account of creation and evolution. Parker, a popular science writer second to none in clarity and congeniality, has given us the single Darwinian bicentenary publication most liable to reconcile religion and science.”

The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate, Dutton Adult, 294 pages.