The Scientific Christian, Part 3: The Spin Doctor


We have seen that Rev Dr Nick Hawkes, author of Who Ordered the Universe? is a master of the begged question, and we have seen that he is quite adept at quote-mining.

Looking at chapter 2, The Evidence of God in Nature, I again found Hawkes cherry-picking quotations to feign support where it does not exist.

Nudging and Fudging

He begins with a brief lesson on the Urey-Millar experiment, the discovery that amino acids naturally assemble themselves from nothing more than a flask of water, atmospheric gases and a bit of faux lightning. He rightly says that this is a long way from building proteins, but then, very wrongly, restates the creationist argument that the odds of such complex entities as proteins arising by chance are infinitesimal.

He describes the problem as like getting a particular result on 200 slot machines simultaneously (the number of amino acids in your average protein), each with 20 symbols (the number of relevant amino acid types). He says:

You don’t think that’s a big deal? Let me explain. It would require you to spin the wheels more times than there are atoms in the universe.1

Chasing up the little superscript ‘1’ in the notes, we find “Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p.254″. That’s odd. I didn’t think Bill Bryson would proffer that argument in a positive light.

I found my copy and checked out page 254. Nope. Lots about meteorites; nothing about proteins or casinos. I began to scan back and forth, then checked the index. I eventually found the relevant passages, much as Hawkes put it, but leading up to this explanation, on page 354:

Take those amazingly improbable proteins. The wonder we see in their assembly comes in assuming that they arrived on the scene fully formed. But what if the protein chains didn’t assemble all at once? What if, in the great slot machine of creation, some of the wheels could be held, as a gambler might hold a number of promising cherries? What if, in other words, proteins didn’t suddenly burst into being, but evolved? – Bill Bryson

Did Hawkes miss this passage and the many supporting arguments surrounding it? Did he choose Bryson, rather than any number of creationists, to give the argument an air of comfortable scientific acceptance? Did he give the wrong page reference deliberately to throw people off the scent if they looked it up? That last question might seem unfair or cynical, but presenting such a puzzle and omitting the solution from the same few pages is so remiss as to make me wonder. Anyway, readers who take the inference at face value, and those who look up the reference but fail to find it, might assume that Bill Bryson shares Hawkes’ incredulity that proteins spontaneously self-assemble from primordial soups in one go (just as, in Chapter 1, we might think that Paul Davies is a fellow creationist and Professor Hawking believes in God!).

Is it because Hawkes knows his argument has already been well refuted that he poses the question and fails to avail himself and his readers of the answer? Is it why he makes the following pitiful defence of an answer he doesn’t even mention?

It has become almost a reflex action of the human psyche to explain the existence of highly unlikely complex structures by attributing them to evolution.

Ironically, it is, on the contrary, a reflex action of the human psyche (beyond about the first year of life) to explain the existence of highly unlikely complex structures by attributing them to hidden agents! It takes hundreds of years of concerted effort by the scientific community and the genius of a Wallace or Darwin to disabuse us of that cognitive compulsion, which Hawkes here is attempting to turn into the basis of a philosophy and a book.

Evolution, as it is currently understood, can only work at the level of living organisms that are able to reproduce and die – and a complex protein molecule is not a living organism.

No, that’s not right. The principles of evolution are increasingly demonstrated to apply beyond biology. Scientific exploration of these issues is at an early stage, and nomenclature is therefore tricky, but something very similar to biological evolution happens wherever there is repeated imperfect generation of forms with some kind of inequitable selection that can act on them. Natural selection, it turns out, doesn’t just act on genes. It results in a very similar process of holding the casino wheels of chance, and it does so in transparently naturalistic processes, whether in the bits of a computer program or the atoms in a molecule.

And still reading the very same page (354), Bryson explains:

Lots of molecules in nature get together to form long chains called polymers. Sugars constantly assemble to form starches. Crystals can do a number of life-like things – replicate, respond to environmental stimuli, take on a patterned complexity. They […] demonstrate repeatedly that complexity is a natural, spontaneous, entirely reliable event. – Bill Bryson, (my emphasis)

A brief google will confirm this with endless pieces of publicly available education. Talk Origins, for instance, says:

Nor is abiogenesis (the origin of the first life) due purely to chance. Atoms and molecules arrange themselves not purely randomly, but according to their chemical properties. In the case of carbon atoms especially, this means complex molecules are sure to form spontaneously, and these complex molecules can influence each other to create even more complex molecules. Once a molecule forms that is approximately self-replicating, natural selection will guide the formation of ever more efficient replicators. – Talk Origins

There are branches of evolutionary theory applied to chemistry, economics, linguistics and computation, at least.

Low-hanging Fruit

But Hawkes isn’t interested in learning in these areas, or, for that matter, biology, and he has clearly failed to learn from Bryson. He’s too busy moving on to the even harder questions. Having miraculously built an organism in no time at all, he asks,

what is the mysterious life force that breathes fire into the unlikely pile of atoms that makes up your body?

He describes having seen dead bodies and, based on how “odd” and “weird” this experience is, he invokes a “mysterious life force”. He gives no other reason, and appears unaware that animism is that same old “reflex action of the human psyche”. Presumably he must think that corpses are exactly the same, physically, as their living counterparts, so must differ from them non-physically.

Why is it so difficult to imagine that the body is a complex chemical reaction, a machine without a ghost animating it? Do we imagine that our broken-down car has lost its invisible va-va-voom? Do we wonder where its mysterious running went? No, we know that the physical integrity of the car, the arrangement of its parts, lies outside its operating parameters. With dead animals, especially our fellow humans, that is harder to wrap your head round, but there’s no reason to suspect that the cases are fundamentally different.

Hawkes’ unashamed exposition of contrary arguments dressed as support probably reaches its zenith in the next few paragraphs, under the astounding sub-title, Please don’t use God as a gap-filler. It is unclear whether this injunction is directed towards believers defending what Hawkes considers an indefensible version of the deity or atheists attacking a straw-man version, but it reminds me of the doublespeak of a politician introducing public spending cuts with platitudes about the importance of public spending.

Hawkes begins:

In ancient times, human beings were not as scientifically informed as they are today. […] If something existed that was extraordinarily complex and ordered, experience had taught them that it was the product of mind […] – a mind they called “god”.

Hawkes, staggeringly, appears not to notice that this primitive ignorance describes pretty well the whole of his thesis precisely.

They sought to understand and define those gods through their own cultural filters, a process that has resulted in the existence of more than 4,000 religions today.

Surely we must be witnessing atheist light dawning through writing religious apologetics!

On the face of it, this was pretty reasonable. Evidence suggested the existence of an intelligence behind the order of creation. Two things then occurred in human history to modify this understanding.

Yes!?…

The first was the insertion of Jesus Christ into history. No longer did humanity have to invent religions to try to reach God; God had come to us and was reaching out to us in Christ Jesus. The historical reality of Jesus, as witnessed to by contemporary historians […] now informed our understanding of things.

I am tempted at this point to admit defeat. Such monumental obtuseness leaves me speechless or tempts me to respond in exasperation with raw insult.

It feels cruel to pick fruit hanging as low as this. I am embarrassed for Hawkes, and irritated to have to find words to explain what must surely be obvious. But he deemed this material worthy to print, and I’ve come this far, so I will try to respond rationally.

What seems so obvious to me is that God’s “reaching out to us” in this formulation could be just another example of humanity “invent[ing] religions to try to reach God”. It seems so obvious that I expect anyone of normal intelligence to recognise the weakness of Hawkes’ statement immediately, and therefore to see the need for reasonable support, but it stands bare as if incontrovertible.

Beyond its specific, identifying features, Christianity is no different a claim than the swathes of religions that preceded and followed it. It is undeniably unique, but so are they all: uniqueness does not imply validity.

The above quote seems to suggest that the reason for this great confidence in Jesus is that historians attested to his existence, but the accounts of the existence of a claimant do not make their claims true. If it is implied that these accounts involve the miracles and character of Jesus, and that these establish the divine truth, they do not: they attest only to the beliefs of the writer.

Belief in a good portion of the other 4,000 religions probably rests on similar claims, the historicity of a person, whose followers worshipped as a god, messiah or prophet, along with accounts of their magical abilities. Does Hawkes really imagine that believers in other gods and demigods didn’t – or still don’t – consider theirs utterly exceptional?

Why did he omit to tell us precisely what marks out Jesus as the real deal, inserted into history by God rather than humans? The stark fact is that there is simply nothing that could provide that absolute (or even probabilistic) mark of authenticity. And this is precisely why he had to tout faith as a virtue earlier, because God is so backward about coming forward.

Spin

And the second thing?

The development of science.

With advances in science, the complexity of a seashell and the path of a meteorite through the night sky were no longer explained as being the direct actions of a god. Consequently, the need to invoke God to explain things began to retreat.

Indeed. But in case we begin to think that Hawkes is on the right track, he opines:

This was not the killer blow to theistic faith that some atheists assert. […] Evidence of reason and mind pervades the universe just as much today as at any other time in history. What it did mean was that God’s involvement was a good deal more subtle; it indicated that he chooses to work through the laws of nature – laws that he put in place to build a universe.

Technically, this move from direct cause of events to the maker of universal laws is a move away from “theistic faith” – to deistic faith. Since the complexity of seashells or trajectories of planets are explained by natural laws, he seems only to be using the existence of natural laws to invoke a god instead of doing so using the products shaped by those laws, which is, as far as I can see, using God as a gap-filler. Besides, this argument denies, at least to some degree, the theistic faith earlier professed, in a God who does more than merely set the world in motion and stand back. Nobody’s subtlety is being demonstrated but his own. And he has the audacity to follow this with:

God should not be lazily invoked to fill gaps in our scientific knowledge.

Except when he does it. We do not know why matter behaves lawfully (gap in our scientific knowledge): therefore God made the laws up.

Anyway, should we avoid using God as a gap-filler really because it would be lazy, or is it to protect faith from scientific discovery raising legitimate doubts? Let’s see…

This is because when something previously ascribed to God’s action subsequently becomes explained by science, the need to postulate the existence of God retreats. This can promote the idea that evidence for God is slowly being eroded by the “pure” truth of science…

I see. Don’t use God to fill gaps, because when science fills them with demonstrable facts it can promote the idea that they provide a better explanation. Staggering. But wait for the end of the sentence.

… which is not the case at all.

Yes it is. This is precisely what he has described, inverting its significance with egregious babble! Politicians, by the same token, should never imply that public services are a social good, because cutting them can promote the idea that people will be worse off.

Further doublethink is apparent in the fact that, despite apparently accepting the naturalistic, lawful progress of matter in principle, he clings to the idea that Jesus Christ was “insert[ed] into history”. Not only do we have the special pleading that Christianity is somehow different from thousands of other religious claims, we have the special pleading that the laws of physics will be suspended whilst the divinity procreates with a virgin or walks on water. And so far neither has been supported with a single scrap of evidence.

This tortuous, self-inflicted refusal to think properly deepens – or sinks – to the underlying question of the limits of scientific and rational knowledge. It is, however, little more than a reiteration of these points:

  • Science doesn’t know everything, and
  • God is by definition immeasurable, therefore
  • we shouldn’t deny the possibility of God

followed by emotive claims about the “genius of God”, as if lack of definitive disproof was good enough to plump for Jesus. We have the strangest – indeed, blatantly disingenuous – formula:

There are huge restraints on what scientists can validly say about God from a scientific perspective. God, almost by definition, has to be beyond the ability of scientists to investigate, quantify, and codify. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist; it simply means that scientists don’t have the language to make a judgement about God other than to suspect his existence on the basis of what they observe.

Why can scientists not suspect his non-existence on the basis of what they observe? The sub-title of this book involved the word “evidence”: admitting that God is invisible should have warned against the project. What Hawkes considers evidence is just that we inhabit “a world riddled with order and codes” (the main title asks why), but, as we have seen, he has misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted a book for the general reader that gives insight into the phenomenon of self-organisation in nature – he, supposedly, a trained biologist.

He again demonstrates his confusion, perhaps genuine, perhaps not, between fundamental sceptical empiricism and the proposal of hypotheses, lamenting that atheists can only say we don’t know where everything came from, then chastising us for “reaching for the escape clause” of infinite universes.

We don’t know certain things and we try lots of ideas; this is much wiser than plumping for one arbitrary explanation (at our own admittance, at worse odds than 1:4000), on the sole grounds that it is untestable and therefore could be true. (The same problem may exist for ‘many worlds’ conjectures, to be fair, but at least scientists face up to the fact. They often even frankly admit that they suspect we may never know the answer to such fundamental questions as where the universe came from.)

The chapter dives to a rousing crescendo of abductive reasoning – God explains why we feel a desire for good, for significance, for creativity, for the love of God, and an aversion to death, meaninglessness, and lack of purpose and relationship – without considering whether evolution through natural selection would also explain them, nor whether one explanation has any more objective evidential support than the other. Presumably, to do so would risk trapping us in an “empirical prison”. Or it might open the door to sceptical freedom.

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7 Responses to The Scientific Christian, Part 3: The Spin Doctor

  1. Woody says:

    I loved that book!
    Is Evolution an inevitable consequence of time?
    I’d like to think it is, but at the same time, i’m wondering if my assumption is as valid as it feels to me.
    Aaaahhhh, the awful pain of scepticism, i’m as guilty as I am profound.
    I am guilty,
    I am flawed.
    I had to get that out of my system, thanks for reading.

    All the best,
    Woody

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Woody! Always happy to provide a vehicle for your catharsis … and your profundity! I’m going to assume you mean you loved A Brief History of Nearly Everything rather than Who Ordered the Universe. 😉

    Your comment about evolution possibly being an inevitable consequence of time got me searching again. I’m not sure if you were referring to something in Bryson. I don’t remember coming across that anywhere.

    Lawrence Krauss recently wrote a book (based on a talk, I believe), A Universe from Nothing, which, perhaps not surprisingly, doesn’t actually describe the genesis of a universe from literally, or philosophically, “nothing” as most of us might think of it, but from a technical definition of nothing in QM, so it doesn’t answer questions about why that technical “nothing” has the creative properties it does, or – as Hawkes might say – where the laws of physics came from.

    NPR did a fairly interesting interview with him that should satisfy the curiosity of the non-technical. http://www.npr.org/2012/01/13/145175263/lawrence-krauss-on-a-universe-from-nothing and there’s a fuller, slightly more challenging review of the idea and controversy that blew up around it at Sean Carroll’s site http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2012/04/28/a-universe-from-nothing/ This mentions one “scenario” where everything might evolve from time. I know very little of these things. That last philosophical step seems almost impenetrable, but obviously scepticism (being honest and getting used to not knowing) is better than wishful thinking (God did it).

    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Yakaru says:

    I love the idea of a “biologist” citing Bill Bryson as an authority on the origins of life. Dawkins’ book Climbing Mount Improbable goes to enormous lengths to explain the emergence of complexity using exactly the same metaphor.

    Regarding life force:
    “Presumably he must think that corpses are exactly the same, physically, as their living counterparts, so must differ from them non-physically.”
    — Good point!
    I’ve been reading up on the history of vitalism, and the idea was long assumed by many (though not all) to be not only true but almost as obviously true as magnetism or electricity. After about 350 years of painstaking attempts to find it (or explain why it couldn’t be found but is definitely there anyway), biologists slowly discarded it as chemistry and physiology revealed more useful explanations. (So too were thousands of materialistic and mechanistic theories as well.)

    “the path of a meteorite through the night sky”
    — He means, of course, meteor, but who’s counting….

    “God, almost by definition, has to be beyond the ability of scientists to investigate, quantify, and codify”
    — Jerry Coyne’s book, Faith vs Fact: Why science and religion are incompatible shows this to be the standard move by theologians — say God is beyond the realm of science and then immediately start making scientific claims about it and trespassing on the very realm of science that they just claimed to want nothing to do with.

  4. Yakaru says:

    (I have no idea what happened with that formating. I posted plain text!)

  5. lettersquash says:

    Hi Yakaru, yea that was weird – it had both ‘pre’ and ‘code’ tags round that bit when I edited it! My fault, I recently put Markdown on, and I think it might do that if you just start a line with two spaces or something. I wish the comment box allowed easier insertion of just emphasize (italic) and strong (bold). With markdown on, you can do that with single or double asterisks (and underscores do the same), but then it allows all sorts of other stuff that might get in there accidentally. I’ll put it off again. Everybody understands stars around plain text.

    Yes, in a book specifically claiming that science supports religious faith, to assert that God belongs to a separate magisterium is pretty silly. I didn’t notice how blatant that is.

    Quite how long I’ll drag this book review out I have no idea. The capacity for stupidity and duplicity is such that every time I think I should move on – there are so many more important subjects to write about – I remember something even stupider. I know I can’t leave this without a post on his solution to the problem of suffering. At least that should be funnier than previous instalments. It can’t not be.

  6. Woody says:

    Hey Lettersquash!
    Thanks for the links!
    A fascinating topic IMHO.
    On review, reflection or whatever, i’ve answered my own question.
    Of course evolution is an inevitable result of time, simply by the mechanics of how it works.
    In every generation creatures have sex, some creatures have reproduction without sex.
    But every time, those with the attributes to live to the age of reproduction … reproduce.

    This may highlight a common misunderstanding about evolution. To some, especially those who have been at the gym working mostly on their quads, evolution seems to make perfect sense.
    What we spend a lot of time doing, makes a big difference on the state of our being.
    But being the culmination of countless generations gaining from the slight increase of individuals who manage to reach the age of reproduction, we can see it in the longer-term. Hundreds, nay, thousands of generations and the traits that tend to more be represented in the newer generations, it’s a cycle that never ends, a cycle that never stops.

    I have less time to spend on my computer these days. Although I used to work in education I have found a place in truck wheels that suits me perfectly. Education was important, fascinating and driving, but truck wheels have gripped me like nothing has gripped me before.

    I appreciate your indulgence, lettersquash, thanks for reading.

    All the best,
    Woody

  7. Yakaru says:

    Thanks for fixing it. WordPress has some odd bugs (compared to the rest of the platform, which I find very good), like it automatically posting a you tube video in the comments, but above the line it will only post text unless you go through a three or four step process. And as you note, it really shouldn’t be too difficult to allow italics and bold for commenters.

    I’m looking forward to his answer for the problem of evil. I find theologians simply start repeating themselves after a short while. There are only a limited number of logical fallacies that can be made.

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