The Scientific Christian, Part 2: Peanuts to Space


Oh no not again [1]

I’m reviewing Who Ordered the Universe? by Nick Hawkes. I must apologise to readers who prefer their book reviews short and pithy: the Reverend Doctor manages to cram an inordinate number of dubious statements into every paragraph, and I’m finding it hard not to respond to all of them. I’m in danger of writing more review than there is book, but hopefully I’ll find I have dealt with all the important issues soon, allowing a more concise treatment of the few outstanding points.

In Part 1, I examined the Introduction. Chapter One is entitled The Evidence of God in the Cosmos. It begins, like an unfortunate parody of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

The universe is big – I mean, really, really big. It blows your mind.

With an imagination somewhat less fertile than Douglas Adams’, Hawkes concludes the thought:

And I have a sneaking suspicion that it is meant to. … The more scientists understand the universe, the more mysterious and spectacular it becomes.

I find the idea that science makes the universe more mysterious quite odd. With it we have solved a large number of mysteries that puzzled the ancients. Where mystery has increased, this is usually from discovering abstruse facts that must replace transparent-seeming falsehoods. Some of these are extraordinarily counter-intuitive and difficult to understand, but in principle science can surely only make the world less mysterious, even if more awe-inspiring.

Hawkes quotes the apostle, Paul:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

Hawkes says, “Now, that’s a bold statement!”

Unfortunately, it is also a completely irrational one. The next sub-heading asks: Aren’t scientific truths and theological truths irreconcilable? – and he immediately answers “No” – but he has just demonstrated why he is wrong. Science depends on observation and logic, and invisible things aren’t seen, let alone clearly. The existence of invisible things might be deduced under certain circumstances, of course, but I don’t think “God’s eternal power and divine nature” are among them.

Why does Hawkes believe science and religion are compatible? Is it because he thinks the evidence points clearly towards God? Apparently not. He explains:

If God exists, then all truth has its origin in God – including scientific truth and theological truth. Because the two truths both derive from the essence of who God is, the two disciplines cannot fight each other.

There is something called abductive reasoning, which proposes causes that are more or less arbitrary, even though consistent with an effect, such as “If the world were an egg laid by a giant turtle, it would be roughly spherical. The world is roughly spherical; therefore it was laid by a giant turtle.” Hawkes’ argument is a little like that, although in this case applied to an observation I would contest: the two disciplines do fight each other.

He begs the question again with that conditional if. Here’s an alternative statement: “If God doesn’t exist, then all truth doesn’t have its origin in God, and the scientific literature would show no evidence for God.”

Paul’s assertion that God is clearly seen is also clearly abductive: God is a proposed cause consistent with observed effects (a complex, puzzling and beautiful world), arguably a sufficient cause, but by no means a necessary one.

Hawkes, through the rest of this chapter, churns out similarly ill-considered reasons to believe in God. The chapter is supposed to be presenting evidence for God, but as far as I can see it amounts to hand-waving. He repeatedly retreats to his plea not to “discount the possibility of God”, which is not in question, and more than once urges us not to put ourselves in an “empiricist prison”, which is presumably where we languish when only persuaded of things by evidence.

He gives the old truism, religion asks ‘why’ questions while science asks ‘how’ ones, by which, he says, religion “puts science in a bigger context”. He fails to consider what the difference is. ‘Why’ questions are teleological, they invoke an agent, and usually a future condition the agent wishes to bring into being, Aristotle’s final cause. Hence, ontological questions of that nature are a priori mythic: they presuppose human-like entities with purpose.

Identifying some kind of agent as the cause of events feels completely satisfying to us, because we have evolved for millions of years as social animals. When we have identified an intelligence as causal agent, even an imaginary one, we’re happy. We can stop asking questions. Our primitive ancestors wouldn’t have been content with the theory of gravity unless we couched it in human terms, perhaps that the Earth Mother wants to keep everything She created close to her. The intuitive appeal of teleology put it in the superior position among philosophers for centuries, but it is now treated with more caution, since the general trend of human enlightenment has progressed from arbitrary explanations involving imagined agents towards identification of functional causes. Hawkes, presumably, would reject all but one of those imagined agents, the God of Abraham.

It is perfectly possible that the universe has purpose or meaning, but just asserting that it does and choosing the one you like best isn’t good enough. It certainly isn’t anything like the scientific process.

If purpose or meaning should emerge as a persuasive hypothesis from fair analysis of nature, so be it, but on the whole the opposite seems true: everywhere we look we find more and more examples of mechanistic self-organisation in nature, blind evolutionary processes, from the formation of stars to the emergence of human culture, each phenomenon building naturally upon the structure below it. It is hard to understand in what sense Hawkes is using the word “compatible” other than accommodating independent world views from their respective non-overlapping magisteria.

Infinite Improbability Drive [1]

Hawkes now plays the creationist’s trump card: the Goldilocks Universe or Fine-Tuning Argument. Cosmologists agree that the fundamental constants of the universe appear finely tuned. If any of the values that underpin physics were different, the universe wouldn’t have condensed into matter, let alone been conducive to carbon-based life. Therefore, Hawkes suggests, the crafty scientists proposed the idea of an infinite number of universes in order to magic away the problem, (it is then no surprise that one of the infinite number is ours, containing life). They clearly do this to avoid surrendering their atheism, and a much more sensible conclusion is that there is only one universe and it is conducive to life because it was created by God.

A casual observer might decide that the issue comes down to the number of universes: if this is the only one, the probabilities against it containing sentient beings is so astronomical as to indicate divine creation; if there are lots of them, it is reasonable to argue that we only find ourselves in this universe because it will sustain us, while vast numbers of them never get going.

However, if this were the only universe, and we grant that intelligence is here, there are many options besides a divine creator:

  1. There may be an evolutionary process governing universes, in which the ‘Goldilocks’ state has some kind of selective advantage, hence converging on ours.
  2. The cosmic constants might be the way they are because they cannot be any other way, for some as yet undiscovered reason.
  3. There might be a creator who is evil.
  4. We might be inside a virtual reality running in an alien’s computer matrix.
  5. The universe might be God, having had a bit of a breakdown and spending billions of years pulling himself together again.

Whatever scenario you propose, the question of why there is something rather than nothing doesn’t go away (although once we have ‘something’ in the sense of matter, it seems likely that intelligence is inevitable). There is no denying that sheer existence is deeply perplexing, but it is hypocrisy to write, as Hawkes does, “The word ‘infinite’ is not an escape clause that allows any possibility,” and allow yourself the escape clause of the eternal, supernatural agent described in the Christian Bible. We should not imagine that God is an answer to why there is something rather than nothing without asking why there is God, and we should not accept as answers to that question: because He always was; because the universe is really, really big; because we exist; because he loves us; or because Paul said so.

For another thing, cosmologists aren’t just casually invoking infinite universes to avoid atheism: they are working on a group of hypotheses involving different numbers of universes and dimensions organised according to mathematics that neither Hawkes nor I have much hope of ever comprehending. They are constrained in doing so by the established facts of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, even if there is some creative guesswork involved. This enormous, rigorous scientific project, in contrast to his own thought process, Hawkes has the audacity to call “lazy”.

Hawkes says “the cosmologist, Paul Davies agrees:”

The multiverse theory … doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws or meta-laws. Where do they come from?

The reference is “P Davies, Taking Science on Faith”. I’m not sure where the original was, but I found the same text almost verbatim in a Guardian article, where Davies continues:

Dumping the problem in the lap of a pre-existing designer is no explanation at all, as it merely begs the question of who designed the designer.

It does raise that question, yes, ready to be begged.

We will never fully explain the world by appealing to something outside it that must simply be accepted on faith, be it an unexplained God or an unexplained set of mathematical laws.

So apparently when Hawkes finds a cosmologist who agrees with him, he doesn’t even agree with him, and Hawkes has to cherry-pick.

He does so even more blatantly with Professor Hawking. He regurgitates the Hawking quote that we find all over the Internet:

The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications.

What better scientific support could there possibly be? Except that the quotation is taken out of context and Professor Hawking has stated clearly that he is an atheist and that

heaven or the afterlife … is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.

I am aware that I could be seen here as arguing from authority. I am not. I am correcting quotes with which Hawkes is trying, and even failing, to argue from authority. With such transparent falsehood coming thick and fast, one begins to suspect deliberate misinformation. It seems unlikely that Hawkes didn’t notice these men do not support his thesis, in which case he would simply be telling lies.

More Biased Irrelevancies

Having apparently not found any scientific evidence or genuine support from scientists, Hawkes now spends several pages telling us that Copernicus and Galileo weren’t really persecuted by the Church, but “Aristotelian philosophers”. Curiously, he then uses the phrase “Copernicus and Galileo fell foul of the Roman Catholic Church” in order to tell us that, despite it, “both remained deeply religious men who were committed to their faith”. And besides – he can’t help remind us – Galileo kind of asked for it with that “Simplicius” (actually, Simplicio) character in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This, he claims, is the mistaken history that has led to the view that there’s a war between science and religion.

He warns us that “it is not always easy to separate fact from opinion in the writings of some of today’s scientists”, which may be true, but he then quotes several opinions of atheists and believers in a very biased way. Stephen Gould’s description of humanity as a “fortuitous twig” on the evolutionary tree is a “personal conviction … not a scientific fact” (I think you’ll find it’s closer to the latter), whereas Paul Davies’ inability to “believe that our existence in this universe is a mere quirk of fate” is described as “reasoning”. The phrase “Ideological blinkers exist in the scientific community” is used to introduce the view of Steven Weinberg, “…tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe…the more [it] seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”, to which Freeman Dyson’s “philosophy of hope” is just presented “in contrast”.

In case you missed which ones were facts, he impugns the motives of certain scientists as not being “pure”, giving examples such as Fred Hoyle, who desperately clung to his Steady State Theory in the face of evidence of the Big Bang, because he was an atheist and Big Bangs were too much like Biblical Creation, and Andrei Linde, who “admitted that his work on … multiverses was partly motivated by his ideological difficulties”. These examples may be true, but it is not enough to conclude that “science is rarely conducted objectively and with pure motives” (my emphasis). Certainly it should be admitted that the scientific method acts to iron out any incidents of bias.

Besides, didn’t a certain Cheshire Cat advise us in the Introduction to have biased motives? Weren’t we urged to come to science with a set of “absolute truths”, including that we have “meaning”? Does Hawkes believe these religiously biased motives are “pure” because they begin from the right “absolute truths”?

Hawkes says that the “laws of physics are regarded as sacrosanct, as phenomena that have always existed in our universe”, asks “Where did these laws come from?”, and says that the “idea that they exist without reason is anti-rational”. He borrows Davies again to state that this means science is “founded on faith – namely, the existence of something outside the universe”. But this is nonsense. The laws of physics are mathematical abstractions, names we put to a recurring pattern of events that we identify. They emanate directly from repeated empirical observation and are demonstrable, so are not faith based. They are human concepts, and so might not exist as ontological realities, whether inside or outside the universe. Would he argue that 2+2=4 is regarded as sacrosanct, external to the universe, based on faith and anti-rational?

It doesn’t matter whether gravity always worked the way it does now or had a different condition earlier. It doesn’t matter whether it was born with the Big Bang or preceded it. What matters is that we currently do not know the answer to these questions. Sceptics accept and admit that. Laws of physics are certainly not regarded as sacrosanct. Nobel Prizes await anyone who can prove them wrong.

Hawkes begins this section with a slightly better point, that we find the universe intelligible. I find it hard to imagine any other possibility, however, since my imagination works intelligently. I can only restate that if this is a puzzle, I do not know the answer, but I will not invoke a circular argument, postulating a Something who attributed the condition of intelligibility on nature. And the fact that we (who resist this temptation) don’t know the answer to a great many riddles demonstrates that the universe may not, in fact, be intelligible. Note that in this chapter we have now had both the world’s intelligibility and its mysteriousness cited as evidence for God.

A Puff of Logic [1]

Hawkes ends this chapter with a few more confused sketches of arguments. He says “Scientists tell us” that the universe is finite and will end in heat death. He appears to accept this as fact, but admits with his usual childlike innocence, “I like happy endings”. It raises for him the question of why – why would all this complexity and wonder dissolve in darkness? And of course the answer is God. At this point I realise with surprise that he has not mentioned Heaven, the extra-universal happy ending he has chosen for himself.

He counters the argument that our being a “minuscule part of the universe” suggests humans are insignificant by quoting John Polkinghorne, who says the universe needed to be big for life to develop on any one planet. He fails to explain the reasoning behind that. What is staggering to me is that people who posit Almighty God in the Twenty-first Century never seem to wonder why He didn’t just create a garden for us with a mantle of stars and a sun rotating above, as was originally believed. It seems that whatever mind-blowing conditions the scientific community has discovered, God is newly posited as having to create in order for us to be here, and, rather than noticing the repeated limitations to omnipotence, the believer cites these necessities as reasons to marvel at His ingenuity. If the multiverse theory became too certain to deny, I feel confident Hawkes would forget he ever criticised it as an atheist plot and use it to celebrate God’s fecundity.

Hawkes seems to want it every which way. He leaves “the last word to C S Lewis”:

If it is maintained that anything so small as the Earth must, in any event, be too unimportant to merit the love of the Creator, we reply that no Christian ever supposed we did merit it.

What, you mean God went to all this trouble over 13.7 billion years just to give rise to a species for whom he can not be expected to care (and yet, within the same credo, for whom He cares intimately).

Hawkes counters the argument that the universe is probably “teeming with other forms of intelligent life” by trying to suggest that it might not be true, since we have no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence yet, with the caveat that if we do discover it, “this need not necessarily be incompatible with Christianity. It might indicate that … God … has designed an inherently fruitful universe”.

Never mind the problem of the Goldilocks Universe, the Christian Universe is just right whatever shape, size or temperature it might be. I suspect that Hawkes unconsciously defines Christianity as that creed which moulds itself around and assimilates any object put in its way to arrive at the originally chosen “absolute truth”. I wonder if there is any evidence at all that he would consider seriously damaging to his faith.

Just when I can’t believe the deliberate obtuseness can get any worse, he writes the last sub-title of the chapter, “Jesus makes sense of it”, and proceeds to his usual discursive method: “If we concede that there is good reason to believe God exists, what can we know about him?” BUT NO GOOD REASON HAS BEEN GIVEN YET! SO WHY “CONCEDE” IT?

And what we can know about Him is, of course: “the fact that God has demonstrated his love for us through Jesus”. The fact, no less. The claim, for which no evidence has been given, is now cited as a fact. This “answers why the universe bothers to exist.” (Universes are people too.)

He underlines his circular argument with more of the doctrine he is trying to support – “In the midst of our bewilderment about our existence, God reached down to humanity in Jesus … died a hideous death to pay the price for our sins, and now invites us to share in the adventures of eternity with him.” I can think of little that I find as bewildering as the Christian doctrine. Quite how its disjointed miracles are supposed to help me understand the otherwise rational, natural, lawful universe beats me.

This, he admits again, “gives us hope”…in contrast with the angry atheists:

All atheists can do is wave their fists in defiance at meaninglessness and strive to manufacture the illusion of progress to distract themselves from the fact that the only thing they have to look forward to is futility.

I sense a lot of projection here. I sense a striving to undermine the reality of progress; why, and what previous era he’d like to return to, I’m not sure. He seems to be distracting himself with ethereal promises of salvation from the physical reality of unhappy endings. I wonder if it isn’t his fists that are waving in defiance at meaninglessness, or would be if he dared assess the scientific evidence impartially.

Certainly I don’t recognise this fist-waving, defiant atheist in myself or others. I don’t see the manufacturing of illusions, only a dedication to removing them. Again, isn’t this wanting things both ways? Earlier we were criticised for being in an empirical prison, which I thought meant we were too empirical; how does that fit with manufacturing illusions?

Why would I only have futility to look forward to? Life only appears futile if you think it mustn’t end in order for it to be worthwhile.


[1] These sub-titles and ‘Peanuts to Space’ are taken from Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
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7 Responses to The Scientific Christian, Part 2: Peanuts to Space

  1. Donald says:

    I’m not waving any fists either. Although metaphorically speaking I could be labeled as waving fists at quantum mechanics.
    No doubt there are some people who think their lives are meaningless or wave their fists, some of those fist wavers are statistically likely to be agnostics or Christians or even supporters of Islamic State. I suspect some of the IS foreign recruits are looking for a meaning to life, and their new found meaning ostensibly derives from another prophet of the same god (sic) as Dr Hawkes’.

  2. Yakaru says:

    Enjoying this ongoing demolition…

    “science can surely only make the world less mysterious, even if more awe-inspiring”
    That is well summed up. A few fairly straight forward laws and a few dozen chemical elements and we can suddenly explain the origins and formation of the entire universe and life on our planet in fewer words than the book of Genesis, but with rather more factual information. But “less mysterious” would also mean “less room for pious babbling while one looks down one’s nose at anyone who disagrees”….

    “…God’s invisible qualities…. have been clearly seen…” (Rom 1:20)
    What??? The KJV makes a little more sense semantically at least:
    “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen…”

    Interesting that Hawkes calls it a “bold statement” — “no excuse” for not believing in God. I assume he’s familiar with the verses surrounding that quote: Verse 18 asserts that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness…” And in the subsequent passages descend into a bizarre rant about how those who fail to see God in His creation will become homosexuals, contract unpleasant diseases, and become horrid stupid people who are worthy of death…. Before reminding people not to be judgmental of each other.

    “‘Why’ questions are teleological, they invoke an agent, and usually a future condition the agent wishes to bring into being, Aristotle’s final cause.”
    Speaking as someone who spent ages trying to write a blogpost using Aristotle’s final cause to explain the naturalistic fallacy but gave up because it got too abstract and wordy, that sentence very succinctly packs a great deal of information into a very small number of words.

    “…telling us that Copernicus and Galileo weren’t really persecuted by the Church, but “Aristotelian philosophers”. ”
    So that’s why Copernicus’ book was on the banned books list until 1859 — Aristotelian philosophers forced them to do it — despite themselves having been previously declared heretical but eventually accepted into the fold and declared part of official dogma.

    “Note that in this chapter we have now had both the world’s intelligibility and its mysteriousness cited as evidence for God. ”
    Yes.

    “quoting John Polkinghorne, who says the universe needed to be big for life to develop on any one planet.”
    Blimey, that’s stupid. And what’s with the Goldilocks Universe?

    “God reached down to humanity in Jesus … died a hideous death to pay the price for our sins”
    That also doesn’t sound like a Goldilocks Universe to me.

    “All atheists can do is wave their fists in defiance at meaninglessness and…”
    …fly about in space ships, detect gravity waves…. The usual materialistic perversions that Enlightenment values inevitably degrade into…

  3. lettersquash says:

    Thanks for your comments, guys. I wasn’t ignoring you – just been away and then had connection issues.

    Speaking as someone who spent ages trying to write a blogpost using Aristotle’s final cause to explain the naturalistic fallacy but gave up because it got too abstract and wordy, that sentence very succinctly packs a great deal of information into a very small number of words.

    It’s a pity you gave up on that. It sounds very interesting and I’d love to read it. I’ve just finished The Moral Landscape, in which Sam Harris makes the case that ought can be derived from is, and thus that science can in principle make moral judgements, based on a measure of ‘well-being of conscious creatures’…as I’m sure you know. I’m still not sure what to make of it, but I see it more positively than I did from watching him talk about it. I can see that the ‘categorical imperative’ and ‘naturalistic fallacy’ would link to agents and final causes. I think Harris plugs one hole by defining the ‘agents’ to whom moral issues apply (anything that can feel and suffer), but I’m not sure the other – a rather intuitive appeal to conditions that are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ – is really philosophically sound. But I get so far thinking about all that and my brain hurts. Intuitively, obviously, peace is better than war and health better than disease…unless war and disease will avoid a global catastrophe later!

  4. Donald not the Donald says:

    Some diseases are beneficial in terms of developing immunity to different diseases, eg. cowpox versus smallpox.

  5. Woody says:

    Good point, Donald not the Donald.

    Best,
    Woody

  6. john brand says:

    Where can I find John Freestone’s blog???

  7. lettersquash says:

    You’ve found it, John.

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