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Swallowing Camels with Peter Robinson
Uncommon Knowledge is a terrific show and I rarely miss it. This post is in response to the February 1st episode By Design: Behe, Lennox, and Meyer On The Evidence For A Creator.
Peter ended the interview by asking why these men have been rejected by the scientific community. I’d like to offer an answer that his guests will not, but that I think is close to the truth.
Science didn’t leave these men. These men left science.
I don’t say that lightly. Over the last couple of years we have witnessed “The Science” abused by erstwhile Men of Science to exclude those who hold marginal or unapproved views. My respect and my sympathy is with those who dare to challenge the orthodoxy — regarding public health, regarding climate, regarding energy, etc. — with information and with reason and with an open mind.
But this isn’t that. This isn’t the story of a handful of Davids taking on the Goliath of establishment belief armed with nothing but better ideas and greater intellectual honesty.
Peter is not himself a man of science, as he’s quick to admit (and as anyone who’s ever heard his comments regarding space exploration will already know). Peter’s guests, in contrast, have impressive credentials, and are charming, intelligent, and eloquent men. What they are not, alas, is men of science in the deep sense. Science is an exercise in humility and self-restraint. Those who practice it necessarily subscribe to an ethos, a framework of discourse, and a set of standards. These gentlemen have rejected that framework and the intellectual self-restraint that it implies. And they have stopped practicing science. Or, which seems less likely given their obvious intelligence, they have simply begun practicing it incompetently.
I’ve written on this topic before and I so I’ll keep this relatively brief.
The core of the argument these men make is that the universe and life within it is simply too improbable to have occurred without divine intervention.
They could make a different argument. They could argue that we don’t currently know of any mechanism by which the universe and life in it might have occurred, and that we can’t rule out divine intervention. They could also add that they personally are predisposed toward that explanation, but that it isn’t one they reach by way of science. That would be fair, and I’d respect that.
But what they can’t do while remaining both true to science and competent in its conduct is make this argument:
The evidence available to us suggests that divine intervention is the most plausible scientific explanation for the existence of the universe and the life in it.
That is the argument they’re making, and the flaws in that argument are sufficient justification to challenge their standing as men of science.
The problem is that divine intervention — what Meyer calls “The God Hypothesis” — isn’t explanatory. It’s like answering the question, “how does that rocket work” with the answer, “Elon Musk built it.”
Left unanswered is the question of “how.” (And I tip my hat to Peter for asking that question late in the interview, at about the 55-minute mark. No answer was forthcoming.)
The God hypothesis doesn’t tell us how God created the universe or life in it. One could as readily say that Elon Musk created the universe; at least we have some concrete evidence that Elon Musk exists. But neither claim has explanatory power. By what mechanism did the creator instantiate the universe? By what mechanism did that creator manipulate it to bring about life and intelligence?
Lacking explanatory power is only half the problem. The God hypothesis is fundamentally illogical.
Consider: Any being capable of creating the universe and of so comprehending its nature as to be able to direct it would, presumably, be at least as complicated as the universe itself. So how is it logical to simultaneously claim that the universe can’t just be the way it is while invoking the intervention of something even more improbably sophisticated and complex in order to explain it? What does that accomplish, other than to place the need to actually explain things — the need to “do science” — comfortably beyond reach?
And while it seems like a simplistic question, it really isn’t: Where did the creator come from? How does “always pre-existing” work, and why doesn’t that work to explain our own universe (which, again, is presumably less complicated than our creator would necessarily be)?
Occam’s Razor is not actually a scientific principle, merely a useful guide to how we think about and evaluate arguments. There’s nothing parsimonious to the God hypothesis. On the contrary, it asserts, under the guise of explaining, a new universe of laws, forces, actions, effects.
Invoking the God hypothesis to fill in the blanks in our understanding of the natural world is, truly, to strain at gnats while unquestioningly inviting far greater mysteries.
I think it would be great if Peter were to invite to his show two or three individuals who were respectful of the science and willing to engage the arguments brought up by this batch of guests. Not so-called “scientific atheists,” men who make the same leaps of faith as Behe and Meyer but in the opposite direction. Rather, it would be good to hear from people who approach both the science and the theology with respect and humility, who don’t declare the unknown to be unknowable, who don’t abandon rational materialism in favor of the supernatural when they run out of answers.
A closing thought and a pet peeve. Meyer continues to repeat the claim, as he did at about 51:45, that “We know from our uniform and repeated experience that information always arises from a mind.” He uses that claim to argue that instances of encoding encountered in nature must therefore also arise from a mind — have an intelligent designer.
This is a transparently circular argument. It is like declaring that everything that floats is a boat and the product of an intelligent creator, then noting that, since coconuts also float, they are clearly the product of an intelligent creator. Meyer wraps the idea in enough buzzwords to make it sound good, but it still doesn’t make sense.Published in Science & Technology
If you operate from the premise that everything in the universe must arise from the rational and be knowable, you put yourself in a bind. I didn’t see the interview yet, but I’ve read at least one of their books; what’s interesting to me is that those who discount what they say are not able to explain the gaps in their own explanations of the universe, but they are certain they are right.
Hank, I’m no scientist, and I’m not comfortable discussing your thoughts further at the moment, but I will think them over. I just think that some things are beyond reason, beyond knowing and I think some of that attitude comes from a certain humility on my part. Or a lack of smarts. But I will certainly give your post a lot of thought. Thanks.
You don’t understand their arguments at all.
Well, you’ve convinced me.
The kids are a whole lot more complicated than the mess they made in the living room, and more complicated than the rubber band artwork they made on the dresser under the hamster cage.
I guess it’s a bad explanation that they did it.
Look, maybe we can start here:
Did you know that arguments have a form, or a structure or a pattern?
You’ve made that argument before. Let me explain why it’s lame.
And a better analogy is to imagine that we found the living room door locked from the inside, and yet discovered it still a mess, but since we just don’t have any theory as to how the kids could have gotten into there, we’re going to say that claiming fairies made the mess is the most scientifically plausible explanation.
That, in essence, is what Behe et al are doing.
What’s lame is how you ignored my refutation of this particular objection of yours and retreated into a completely different objection.
SA, I’m familiar with your particular brand of I’m-the-teacher-you’re-the-student-and-by-the-way-you-know-nothing argument. You’re welcome to it, but I’m not going to play that game.
Your analogy was weak, as it didn’t describe the leap (and the leap out of science) the ID folk are making. Feel free to make a better argument.
In fact, feel free to make any argument you like. Strive for concision and I’ll be more likely to read it.
I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not a game I’ve ever played.
You had an objection about the complexity of G-d. I objected to the objection, and you responded with a different objection about the speculative and non-scientific nature of belief in G-d. So you changed the subject. (And it was kind of lame.)
There are two possibilities that I can see: 1) When we die, that’s it. Our consciousness is extinguished. 2) Something survives physical death and, just maybe, there is some sort of enlightenment.
I’m content to wait and find out . . . or not, depending on whether 1 or 2 is true.
Take your pick:
But maybe I misunderstand you. I thought your point here was that an explanation should not be more complex/sophisticated than what it explains. Was your point actually something else?
I think it was more like, your creation theory necessarily requires something more sophisticated than what was created, which created the universe; so why is it somehow more credible – at least to you/others – that a more-sophisticated creator existed from nothing, rather than the universe existed from nothing?
If you ignore the first two questions, you can get that. What about the first two? I thought the last two were supposed to be building on the first two.
There are at least three ways of interpreting this blurred set of questions.
One is what you just said.
Another is: An explanation should not be more complex/sophisticated than what it explains.
A third is: This particular explanation is unscientific because it’s unscientific and/or speculative.
Which of these is actually intended?
[edited to remove double quote.]
You’d have to ask him. I was just trying to be helpful.
My point is that, if one can not accept that something as complex as the universe can “just be,” then how can one accept that something vastly more complex can “just be?”
These gentlemen make much of the improbability of the universe being just as it is, and based on that declare that something far more orderly and awe inspiring than the universe must have created it. What I haven’t yet heard is the numerical probability that God exists. That seems necessary. If a probabilistic argument is being made, then the probability on both sides should be given, so that we can determine which is actually less probable.
Incidentally, none of this is an argument against the existence of God. It’s merely a criticism of those who claim the status of “experts” and use something they claim is “science” (but that really isn’t) in order to make claims about the existence of God.
“They could make a different argument. They could argue that we don’t currently know of any mechanism by which the universe and life in it might have occurred, and that we can’t rule out divine intervention. They could also add that they personally are predisposed toward that explanation, but that it isn’t one they reach by way of science.”
This is, I submit, the key to Henry’s argument, one with which I broadly agree. Science is only science—and useful, or powerful— as a technique for discovering and describing the contours of material reality. The technique calls for the presentation of a hypothesis, generally based upon observation, which may then be falsified. A good scientist is one who is willing (if, perhaps, not thrilled) to see his hypothesis disproved, either in part or as a whole.
The problem I see with what I will, for shorthand, call “creation science” isn’t that it’s incorrect, either as a whole or in part. The problem is that it does not present a falsifiable hypothesis. If “God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh” is treated as a proposition, and tested (however one would do that) through the processes of science, what if the results reveal that, sure, God created the heavens and the earth, but it took him two days, not six? Or that creation took fourteen seconds, ten weeks, or a million years? The Biblical account would still be “wrong.” I’ve seen strenuous effort expended in explaining that one can square the Biblical account with “science” by declaring that, for God, a “day” is ack-shully a billion years, which maybe puts God’s original amanuenses into the ballpark?
Why do this? The BIble is not a geology textbook anymore than it is a cookbook: Demanding that the Bible (or the theologies and theologians that work with it) do “science” is like asking it to provide a recipe for chocolate cake. Wrong genre.
Which isn’t to say that a creationist (“God created”) is necessarily wrong. For all I know, “science” might one day prove that yes, God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. So what? How would that change anything? Would it then be easy to be a human being in relationship with that God or with each other? Would every human being on the planet then love his neighbor as himself?
@E.Kent Golding’s point [on another thread…I need more coffee!] about the corruptions of science we see at present (e.g. COVID, climate change, trans-nonsense) demonstrates why the scientific method had to be invented and why even scientifically-advanced cultures so often fail to stick to it: Human thinking is far more likely to default to the political, poetic, and/or just solipsistic. This is also true, by the way, of our failure to recognize and adhere to the implications of faith. Reformers, (religious, scientific, political) must come along at intervals and scrape away the schmutz that naturally accumulates no matter which lens we are bringing to bear on the extraordinary and vexing complexity of life.
Having said that, my understanding of God —available upon request—is accompanied by an amateurish scientific proposition of my own. Well, of course it is!
I think it would be great if Peter Robinson interviewed the Philosophy professor, Graham Oppy, who teaches in Australia. Oppy has held many respectful debates with Christians about various topics.
Physicist Sean Carroll has debated what is often referred to as “the fine tuning argument for God’s existence” with Christian physicists.
I will say this about the proposition that a Creator (let’s call him God) created the universe we live in.
Some say that God is morally perfect. Yet somehow God’s creation, the world in which we live, contains huge amounts of moral imperfection.
I know that Christians use the concept of “the fall” to explain how a morally perfect God produced what is now a morally imperfect world.
But as you mentioned, it would be, as philosophers say, ontologically parsimonious (a.k.a. Occam’s razor) to either think that God isn’t morally perfect or that the universe had no creator.
As a Jew I would respond that G-d didn’t intend to create a perfect creation–he expected us to continue the job. That is our mission: to continue creation.
That is an interesting explanation of how an morally perfect God produced a morally flawed creation.
One can understand why a morally neutral God would create a world in which both good and evil exist.
This is why I think the philosopher Dr. Stephen Law and his version of The Evil God Hypothesis is helpful.
An Evil God could present one group of people a certain revelation, creating one religion. Then the Evil God could present another group of people with a different revelation, creating another religion. And again and again, until the world is filled with a multitude of religions and the religious people accuse each other of being infidels or “children of the devil.”
The Evil God sits back and believes his plan has succeeded.
Dr. Stephen Law says that he doesn’t believe that the Evil God in his hypothesis exists. But he does say that it is every bit as plausible as the Good God hypothesis.
You folks are welcome to discuss theology if you wish. My interest is only to help people recognize when the language and credentials of science are being misused for theological purposes. (That applies equally to those who claim evidence of G-d’s existence and those who claim evidence of His non-existence.)
I realize that you want to stick to the science and avoid philosophy (and theology).
However, I would argue (and this isn’t a criticism) that you are engaging in some philosophy, the philosophy of science.
Yes, the larger topic is the nature of science — of the scientific process — and the limits of its use. That isn’t theology. And I don’t mind the thread going off in the direction of theology if that’s where someone wants to take it. I’ll just skip the theology parts. My interest is, again, in countering a pseudo-scientific defense of either belief or non-belief.
Too bizarre for me.
It might be hard to completely avoid theology, if only because the people you have criticized are not simply arguing for Deism, a mere Creator of the Universe.
They are arguing for Theism and usually Classical Theism where God didn’t just create the Universe and consider his job completely done, but where God is perfectly knowledgeable, all powerful and morally perfect.
Those folks you argued against in your post did not say, “God created the universe, but we know nothing else about God.” No. They argue that “God created the universe” and then them make one assertion after another about God’s nature, God’s commands, God’s punishments (both in this world and in the afterlife), God’s Holy Books and how these Holy Books are to be interpreted.
When a Christian says that “Jesus is the only way to salvation,” this goes beyond the idea that we need some “first cause” of the universe.
What you say is often the case. (It was in Meyer’s recent book, for example.) But in the particular interview in question the nature of the creating intelligence was left unexplored.
This—the use of the creation story as a springboard into further discussion about God’s nature, God’s commands, etc.— is what the text in question (the Bible) invites, even demands.
The question of how God created the universe is uninteresting—obviously!— to the original authors and presumably to their audience. A couple of paragraphs, at most, are devoted to the creation of the entire Cosmos and all its inhabitants; biologist E.O. Wilson could fill the whole book just on the subject of the creation of the ant.
Does that mean that the authors of the Bible (let alone the Author) were somehow blundering around the world blind to biological complexity? Of course not—these people were pastoralists, farmers, occasionally hunter-gatherers; they knew a lot more about biological reality than your average Yale freshman these days, but describing their understanding of biological processes was not and is not the purpose of this Scripture.
Again, this isn’t a problem or a flaw unless one insists that there is no value in any human endeavor other than science, or that scientific proof is the best and only determinant of what is true.
When someone makes a claim, sometimes we might wonder if the claim is true. We might ask the person making the claim, “How did you reach this conclusion? What’s the Evidence for this?”
Sometimes the evidence presented isn’t very convincing or it is convincing to some and not others.
This happens in court rooms. This happens with the presentation of religious beliefs.
W. F. B., Jr.’s formulation was that we can reason to God’s existence, but reason takes us only so far. Revelation was necessary to reveal God as a being and not just an impersonal force. Jesus said that “no one comes to the Father except through me”, but you are free to reject that revelation on any grounds you choose. It is of no concern to me if you and others do. I’m not sure I accept it myself as it is commonly interpreted.