I have been reading a book by Rev Dr Nick Hawkes, a pastor, writer and broadcaster living in Australia, who has four degrees, two in science and two in theology. The book is called Who Ordered the Universe?: Evidence for God in unexpected places.
I didn’t exactly choose it, but the book happened to come my way and I decided to read it, partly to challenge my current view, and partly because I thought it was about time I wrote a review or critique of Christian theology. It was just published in 2015, so it should, if Hawkes is worth his title of Reverend, represent the bleeding edge of Christian theology. It also claims that science and faith are compatible, which is one of the main contentions that I wish to address.
From the blurb:
Dr Nick Hawkes gathers evidence from science, history, and mathematics to seek out the signature of God. By surveying the various fields of study, he gathers a mass of evidence, concluding that faith in God is reasonable and that the evidence invites it. Addressing the big questions of origins and meaning, Hawkes considers the cosmos and the arguments for a Creator behind creation. He looks at biology, and the ideas of Darwin and Dr Richard Dawkins. He examines the significance of suffering and the phenomenon of mathematics – the code by which we understand how things work.
I very soon found that it would take a sizeable article to address the Introduction alone, so this post is confined just to that. Some of the chapters of the book will demand further posts in due course.
Have you Stopped Begging Questions Yet?
The title, Who Ordered the Universe?, is blatantly begging the question. I assumed this would not have gone unnoticed by a man with two scientific degrees to his name, and must be a nice piece of irony to be explained in the text. Surely…
By the way, the widespread misuse of the idiom “to beg the question” irritates me (although not as much as begging the question). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard it used as a little segue, “…which begs the question…” in documentaries. No it doesn’t, I growl, it just raises it!
Begging the question is almost the opposite of raising one. It is assuming that you know the answer already in one way or another. It is an unfair method of arguing a point, sneaking an assumption past the listener or trying to force it upon him, as in the well-known double bind, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”.
The question that is being begged in the title is, of course, that whatever caused order in the universe deserves a personal pronoun: it’s a who. Begging the question should be a vitally important concern for scientists. It is a logical fallacy.
Hawkes begins the book with this statement: “What you believe is important”, and he assures the reader that he will therefore “tread gently in the places where you let me wander…Only the truth is worthy of you – so I must be careful. Taking care with the truth means we can’t just accept everything as being right”. This is a good foundation: serious, polite, cautious. I agree wholeheartedly.
But what he says next gives an early indication of the direction he’s going to take in his approach to knowledge: “It is not the case that we can believe whatever we like, provided we are nice to people”. The very first reason Hawkes gives for being discriminating about beliefs concerns moral goodness. The problem with wrong knowledge, he says, is that it might stop us being nice to people.
Don’t get me wrong, morality is important and I would like my knowledge to help me be nice to people, but this doesn’t go to the heart of the matter at all. It doesn’t begin to do justice to the question of how knowledge is known, how beliefs are judged as valid representations of reality. It doesn’t express the depth of passion I feel for knowledge, either. It is unnecessary and unhelpful to mix up the idea of factual correctness with how it affects us morally.
But his claim is doubtful anyway. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. Knowledge affords efficacy. It has uses in being nasty as well as in being nice. Military incentives have spawned many of our major discoveries and technological advances.
Hence, the act of discerning and knowing facts can be divorced from moral behaviour. Facts can be used for good or evil. Facts don’t tell us ahead of time what balance of help or ill they might convey when established. Facts simply don’t have a moral content – factuality is actuality – they just are, whether you like them or not and whether they tend to make you nice or not. We can believe whatever we like and be good or bad to people, but facts remain facts. If I’m stupidly just making bland assertions, do let me know; I sincerely can’t think otherwise.
Apparently to illustrate his point, surprisingly, he then goes into a short discussion of the folly of relativism and political correctness, as though this were the opposite of choosing beliefs that make you treat people nicely. “Toleration of everything”, which he calls “today’s mantra”, is “capitulation to evil”. There is a strange non sequitur here. He was talking about being careful about what we believe, and now illustrates the failure of this principle not in relation to belief, but “toleration”, which is a political stance or behaviour in reaction to other people’s behaviours.
To tolerate everything is to believe that there are no universal truths, just personal convictions that may change according to the circumstances. Holding such a low view of truth is a very bleak position to adopt philosophically. It must inevitably result in pragmatic self-interest that competes against the interest of others.
It seems that empiricism, testing for truth and falsehood by practical means, has escaped him entirely, or he has escaped it, and the opposite of believing things that make us nice is suddenly “tolerating everything” and not holding “universal truths”.
I sense an implicit criticism of sceptics and atheists, but only because I don’t believe he can have innocently ignored the empirical option. Scepticism is doubting everything, but he seems to be insinuating a link with tolerating everything, and thus painting scepticism as morally and politically dangerous. He almost seems to suggest that scientific theories are “personal convictions that may change according to the circumstances”. Should we not change our minds about things?
The result of the combination of these two non sequiturs, from belief to toleration and from relativism to immorality, is that he seems to be equating scepticism with evil! Perhaps I have misunderstood him.
Anyway, I am disappointed by the casual introduction of “universal truths” (and the implicit suggestion that these are the Christian doctrinal ones) into an argument, without establishing whether there are such things (now, what was that called again?).
I am sad to see someone argue that not holding universal truths is a social ill, setting us against others, when at least as much danger must obviously arise from holding them. If A believes certain things and B believes different things, they are immediately set at odds if each holds these to be universal truths, whereas if they are relativists they will tend to hold their views less rigidly and respect each other’s. Is this not clearly illustrated through history? Clashes arise not from relativism and over-toleration, but absolutist sets of supposed “universal truths” (even when these include “Love thine enemy.”).
Moral opinions have long since been considered anathema to proper scientific discussion. Why? Well, because “pragmatic self-interest” is often caused by just such emotive issues as individuals’ moral views and their championing of particular “universal truths”, distorting the search for truth. If one of the main themes is that science and faith are compatible, he’s not off to a good start.
But there is another subtler distinction to be made here. He has apparently suggested that the empiricist has no “universal truths”, which is somewhat misleading: we have the ideals of empiricism and reason. They are the best cognitive tools we can utilise, applied as rigorously as we can and scrutinised for error. They are very simple at heart: test things, see what happens, and think clearly about the results. I’m not sure what universal truths could possibly trounce repeatable demonstration and clear thinking, but we’re open to listening if anyone has any.
Curiouser and Curiouser
Hawkes says that his book will invite you “to consider the real significance of who you are, and to explore what your meaning is”, and that it will “introduce you to the possibility of God”. The possibility of God is a hypothesis that can stand alongside all reasonable alternatives and be tested like them. But we should note a further question that has been begged: discovering what your meaning is assumes you have one, and he clearly isn’t pointing at naturalistic explanations, but cosmic purpose or value.
It may be useful to consider why he doesn’t just tell us that we have cosmic significance and indicate clearly what it is and why that must be so. It may be because he is simply setting the scene and inviting us to open our minds, but I feel otherwise. The lack of plain speaking, these tentative gestures and invitations, so many sliding definitions and begged questions, all suggest to me we are being stealthily beckoned down a rabbit hole.
Hawkes quotes the exchange in Alice in Wonderland between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, in which Alice asks the Cat which way she should go from here, and the Cat replies that it depends on where she wants to get to. Alice says she doesn’t care, and the wise Cat answers, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”.
This illustrates again the chasm between Hawkes and the scientific viewpoint. He immediately asks the reader what is, in context, a deeply anti-scientific question: “Where do you want to go in life?”, and explains he doesn’t mean trivial things, but “what you want your life to count for”. Again, he is suggesting we adopt an anthropocentric, emotional basis for judging important ontological questions.
A scientific Alice would answer, “OK, thanks, I’ll wander over this way and see what I find”, or she might decide to investigate an interesting feature of the landscape. If she wanted to be really rigorous, she might implore the Mad Hatter to build a random direction generator out of an old teapot to make sure her discoveries aren’t biased by her personal preferences.
Hawkes is talking about one of the deepest questions, human identity, and he’s advising us, quite clearly, to prejudge the direction of inquiry. Decide what kind of an answer you want, then search in that direction. This should be called the question-begging method, or deliberate cognitive bias.
“If you believe life has meaning”, he continues, “then it is terribly important for you to discover what that meaning is and live in a way that reflects it. If you don’t do this, you risk your life becoming shallow and self-obsessed”. In one short piece of abysmal reasoning, he insinuates that life has meaning (disingenuously expressed as a conditional), insists we discover what that meaning is, and then tries to scare us with the consequences of failing to get it right.
It seems to me he is expressing his thoughts backwards. The idea of failing to find the correct meaning of life and living by it is unconscionable to him, perhaps terrifying (it is “terribly important”), so life must have a meaning. From there, Christianity, or any set of arbitrary “universal truths”, is just a small hop for the impatient.
It is obvious that if you prejudge that life has meaning (or any particular meaning), there is also a risk that your life becomes shallow and self-obsessed, by leading it according to an untruth. It may be a matter of preference, but I contend it would be better never to discover the truth than to invest heavily in a belief without absolute, or at least very strong, confirmation. This is just stating that I’m a sceptic.
Treading Heavily on Sceptical Chests
Hawkes repeats his irrelevant rant about “contemporary culture” being “locked into the idea of ‘doing your own thing'”, denying “any universal truth or value”, and developing “a mind that is adrift, not controlled by anything other than unbridled desires”, this time referring briefly to C S Lewis’ chapter, Men Without Chests from The Abolition of Man, itself “based on Plato’s notion that the chest is the location of a person’s spirit, heart and character”. The wiki link gives some indication of the paranoic fear of a dystopian future that Lewis seems to have suffered, and the outdated Platonic view of “natural values” (the idea that a waterfall is objectively “sublime”, for instance, rather than that such values are human concepts).
It also might give some insight into the apparent fear that drives Hawkes to contrast the believer with a licentious flibbertigibbet of contemporary culture rather than the sceptical scientist. If he contends that faith and science are compatible, it would be from considering scientific methods that he might make progress in this area, yet he seems driven to keep stuffing straw into this hypothetical post-modern reprobate so that he can kick it out again.
But Lewis’ or Plato’s condemnation is nothing to scripture’s. Hawkes says “the Bible speaks about people who think like this”:
Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19)
“Such people”, Hawkes adds, “have no character, no chest”.
The subtitle of this happy little section is “Character and courage”. I still don’t know who this whipping-boy is, but it is presumably related to non-belief in the Christian God and scepticism. My challenge is this: doesn’t it take character and courage to investigate the universe as dispassionately as possible, putting your personal preferences, hopes and fears to one side, not deciding what the result of your studies will be, trusting only those things you can establish (and only tentatively trust them) through methods that have proved their worth and have a solid rationale behind them? I contend that it does. I reckon it’s pretty hard to follow that meandering and narrow road, with temptation on all sides.
The temptation is to give up, have things settled in whatever way one can, and march steadfastly in the straight line you favour or happen to have found yourself on. I contend that to decide that you are loved by a deity and cosmically purposeful is a very significant temptation.
Of course, deciding that everything is definitely meaningless, or that there is definitely no God, could also bring relief from the hard work of sceptical enquiry: I would not defend atheism as an absolutist position.
Call the Expert Witness
Hawkes adds “another reason why it’s important to find your true identity and meaning”: your mental health; “no one who lacks this knowledge is getting on very well”. For evidence, he quotes “famous psychologist and philosopher”, Carl Jung, who said that a third of his patients suffered from “no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives”. Skipping over the fact that one only need define this condition as a neurosis for it to become a “clinically definable neurosis” (and Jung’s similar intellectual rigour on other matters), I have been making the point that not feeling very well does not indicate incorrect knowledge. It may indicate having just enough “character and courage” to have so far resisted the temptations of clinging to happy certainties (at least until you see a deluded shrink). The implication is that Jung’s patients lacked religious faith, which would have given their lives meaning and made them happy.
It follows obviously from this suggestion that religious conviction could ameliorate the discomforts of uncertainty without being valid. Hawkes puts the idea forward immediately, so he sees it, but he chooses to do so with some vicious hyperbole of H L Mencken:
God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in his arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; he will set them above their betters.
I believe Hawkes chose this extreme attack in order to dismiss it rather than taking a sober look at it. Instead of acknowledging that it is virtually the same point in all but tone (religion cheers you up) that he extracts from Jung’s observation, he says that he is being insulted for being a Christian, and he knows many Christians who are “wonderful and brilliant”.
There is a serious – and caring – point to be made, as I have just done: beliefs might make us feel better that aren’t true. It does not require that the religious are incompetent or all the insulting things Mencken says. It is a point that is crucial to a reasonable assessment of the likelihood of a divine universe, and yet here it is dismissed with a little defensive tableau. He can puff up his chest with righteous indignation to give the impression of a refutation of a point he doesn’t consider, with an irrelevant anecdotal opinion about his peers. Can wonderful and brilliant people hold incorrect views? Then the argument is worthless.
To demonstrate the temptation that Christianity might represent, we need only quote John 3:16, central to the faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life“.
If (1) humans have a fear of death, and (2) we have a tendency to form incorrect, pleasing beliefs, we ought to be very wary of promises of immortality. Both of those conditional clauses are true, and the world’s religions are largely based on promises of immortality, so it is reasonable to suggest that their existence may be due to their value not as truths, but as comforting myths.
Humans developed the intelligence to recognise their mortality, and the language to share the dismal news with their fellows: it seems very plausible, therefore, that religion was invented as a pleasant myth to help them cope (as well as to provide arbitrary answers to a lot of other difficult questions).
It is very plausible that similar hopes and fears might have distorted the reasoning of people ever since, acting to keep particularly effective myths alive, especially when, once established, the prior existence of the myth can be mistaken for its trustworthiness. It is now becoming well understood that the reason for the spread of a meme is not because it is true, but simply because it has features that cause it to spread.
This does not prove that the religious meme is untrue, but arguing that it is true with emotional appeals, warnings, anecdotes, bluster, appeals to authority and threats of the dire consequences of not believing it appear rather threadbare.
Hawkes reminds us that God is subtle. He says, “If Christianity is right, then God is not one to prove his existence with overwhelming displays of might.” Indeed. If Christianity is right, God is being pretty secretive about it.
As we approach the end of the Introduction, we are assured that science can point towards God, but that God’s “genius” is that He can’t be known “through the intellect alone”, only “through the humbling door of faith”. Hawkes gives the noticeably teleological reason for this that it avoids only clever people finding God. It seems to me less than a mark of genius to be as inscrutable as He undoubtedly is and then bolt on an IQ-levelling workaround. Is it valid to ask why God doesn’t just make his presence known more plainly in the first place?
On the second point, rather than giving a reason why we ought to be humble, he asserts that we all need humility and faith and says “this is why Jesus taught that unless we have faith as humble and trusting as that of a little child, we will not enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:15)”.
I’m stunned that supposedly educated people can present such arguments, apparently without noticing their circularity. This is a common trick of preachers, appearing to provide evidence – “…this is why Jesus taught…” – which isn’t evidence, since it relies on the very doctrine under consideration. Less sophisticated commentators on the Internet put it more simply: “The Bible is true, it says in the Bible”.
Not only that, but isn’t the injunction to be humble and trusting a great way to encourage people to be gullible?
And yet Hawkes says, (and I really have to give this a block quote):
This book invites you to be thoroughly discontent with shallow thinking.
…after which he returns to begging questions: “Dare to read God’s signature on the invitations he’s sent you.” (Experience involves invitations with signatures on them.) “Learn to be amazed at the things around you.” (You’re not amazed already; you have to learn this; amazement implies supernaturalism.) “Let yourself say ‘Wow!’ frequently.” (Wow.)
But hang on: “Dare to”? Dare to believe in personal salvation by a loving intelligent creator who will welcome you to an eternity of bliss rather than oblivion after being a perfect mentor throughout life? Dare to believe you have some deep cosmic meaning? What kind of a dare is that? Surely we would normally have to be dared to believe something horrible, like that our lives might be meaningless in the great scheme of things. Does it not take more daring, more courage, to contemplate a godless universe? Doesn’t Hawkes’ “dare to” just mean “try to”? And doesn’t it remind you of someone pushing, if not a harmful drug, at least a useless placebo? You will probably feel better, Jung said so.
Fear and Loathing
He ends his Introduction with this:
More than a “nasty smell”
If there is no God to give meaning and worth, then we are simply an organic accident that has drifted aimlessly to the top of an evolutionary tree to flourish briefly before dying and leaving a rather nasty smell. My hope is that when you die, you will leave more than a “nasty smell”.
This appears to be Hawkes’ transparent admission that fear and loathing of the alternative is what motivates his religious belief. His disgust is visceral, like the recoiling of most mammals on encountering the dead body of one of their kind.
My hope for my readers is that they will suspend their emotional reactions to cosmological hypotheses and analyse them as dispassionately as possible, to avoid desire or fear contaminating their thinking. I hope they will come to recognise that the pleasantness of a philosophy represents a danger to its analysis through its seductiveness, which, rather than verity, might explain its inception and transmission through time.
Precisely because “what you believe is important”, I suggest, we should formulate our world view on the basis of careful reasoning and empirical testing. Hawkes has so far given me no reason to believe that coming to a Christian world view by these means is possible. But this was just an introduction, and the real meat of his argument is yet to come.