This is part two of my “class report” on a recent Common Ground Group homework assignment, specifically, to read the transcript of the Intelligence Squared debate of the proposition that “Science Refutes God”, consider its implications and comment on it.
The motion (Science refutes God) was argued by two teams. The A Team (A is for Atheist) was composed of Michael Shermer—American science writer, science historian and founder of The Skeptics Society—and Lawrence Krauss, Canadian-American theoretical physicist, cosmologist and professor of physics.
On the B Team (B is for Believer) were Dinesh D’Souza—Indian American conservative political commentator, author and former President of The King’s College, NY—and Ian Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both are Christians, but neither was raised in that faith.
In part one, we looked at the motion itself: Science Refutes God. Krauss and Shermer based their arguments on:
- The irrationality of their opponents.
- The definition of refute as not being synonymous with disprove.
- The unreasonableness of certain Christian doctrines.
Hutchinson and D’Souza countered by saying, essentially, that there is no scientific proposition that refutes God. However, they also commented on the Christian doctrine of the Sonship of Christ, which begged questions unrelated to the motion.
Krauss further contended that:
“…there’s no way to disprove the notion that God didn’t create all of us 15 seconds ago with the memories of the amusing comments we heard before that. There’s no way we can disprove that, okay. And that’s really important to recognize that those kind of unfalsifiable notions are unfalsifiable, as I say. But we can ask, is it rational to expect that that’s likely. And tonight I want to emphasize that 500 years of science have demonstrated that God, that vague notion, is not likely. It’s irrational to believe in God. (emphasis mine)
Again, we have an argument based on a questionable assumption. God may be a vague notion to Krauss, but He is not a vague notion to Bahá’u’lláh (Founder of the Baha’i Faith) or to any of the other Avatars who claimed to represent God. Nor is He a vague notion to the people who believe in God in part because of the testimony of these individuals. Krauss seems unaware of the long line of Avatars and Prophets who have proposed very specific teachings about (and from) this “vague” God that billions of people put into daily practice. Even those who do not consciously associate themselves with a particular religious tradition (the so-called “nones”) put many of those principles into practice out of habit, instruction, and rational and emotional sensibilities—that is, because they work Those practices form part of an experience that is not testable in any laboratory except the laboratory of life.
Which brings up a salient point: the reality in which most of us live day to day does not adhere to scientific paradigms. We experience too many things moment by moment that cannot be tested in a lab, and make too many decisions that cannot be decided by mathematical equations or Bayesian logic. In fact, the things that are most important to human beings in daily life are not material, physical things at all, but intellectual and emotional constructs. We live less and less in the world of natural laws and more and more in the world of the intellect, which is a marvelous place to exist if one has developed the intellectual faculties to do so.
But I digress. Krauss concludes that the belief that God created us and all our memories 15 seconds ago is irrational. The B Team would come to the same conclusion, based on the same criteria. The implication of Krauss’s words is that they would not come to that conclusion (perhaps because they are incapable of using logic) and his evidence of this is his opinion that believing God created the universe 15 seconds ago is no less irrational than believing that He created it billions of years ago along with the natural laws that make it work.
So far, all Krauss has done is make absolute pronouncements based on his opinions. “It is irrational to believe in God,” he says. But throughout the debate, neither he nor his teammate, Michael Shermer, substantiated the pronouncement in any way. They simply repeated it in different forms as if by repeating it, they made it real.
And they did make it real for a subset of their audience. Real enough that those people came out of the debate believing that science does, indeed, refute or disprove God.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some B Team commentary. Ian Hutchinson, author of Monopolizing Knowledge (which I just purchased) began his presentation of the believer’s point of view somewhat differently than his anti-theist colleague…
Let’s agree that this motion is not about whether, for example, the latest sociological theories disprove the gods and goddesses of ancient Greek mythology. No, it’s about whether modern natural science exemplified by things like physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and so on rule out thoughtful theism.
So far so good. He continued:
Our job is just to show that Christianity’s God is not refuted by science. Now, obviously there are some religious beliefs that are ruled out by science, for example, the belief that the earth is stationary and orbited by the sun, moon, and stars. That is disproved by science, and perhaps prior to the 17th century, most Christians held a belief like that, as did most other people. But that stationary earth belief is not in the least central to the Christian message and doctrine. (emphasis mine)
And here is where I think the B Team first gets off message. Hutchinson states the goal well—to show that science does not rule out thoughtful theism. But then I think he goes off into the weeds. First of all, the centrality of the earth is not only “not in the least central to the Christian message”, it’s not part of the Christian message at all. Neither Christ nor Moses (nor any other Prophet prior to Baha’u’llah) said one word about how the planets aligned, though Muhammad did note that the Sun was a fixed star.
Oddly, this made me wonder not how much Dr. Hutchinson knew about physics (presumably lots) but how much he knew about the contents of the Bible and how closely he equated those contents with the sectarian dogma of a particular congregation.
More important still, Hutchinson narrowed the target of the motion down to “Christianity’s God” and set up a challenge.
To establish the motion, what our opponents have to do is to show that some central tenet of what Christians believe about God is impossible or at least highly implausible in the light of science, and that’s a tall order. Actually, they can’t even come close.
A Doctrine of Science
What the A Team did was to open the door to the argument about the irrationality of a God who punished all of humanity for the sins of a long dead progenitor and then required a further death to redeem humanity (either His own or His son’s depending on the particular doctrine). A humanity that continues, by the way, to commit its own sins.
This was unfortunate for the B Team because they made some very cogent arguments in other areas.
For example, Ian Hutchinson said:
But let me dispense with a couple of the most plausible sounding arguments. I’ll illustrate one common argument from the writing of an MIT colleague, Alan Lightman, who wrote in the Salon magazine last year, he said, “The central doctrine of science is the view that the laws of nature are inviolable.” He said, “Science and God are compatible as long as the latter, God, is content to stand on the sidelines once the universe has begun.”
Now, I certainly shall not shrink the God that I advocate down into a deistic, non-interventionist first cause. No, the God I’m interested in is personal and active in the world. So the question is, “How do I answer Alan Lightman?” It’s straight forward. The presumption that the laws of nature are inviolable is just not a doctrine of science. Alan and a lot of other people are just wrong about that. Science’s method and its program is to describe the universe insofar as it is repeatable and follows universal laws, but science hasn’t got the slightest need to extrapolate that method and program into a presumption that everything that happens must be so describable. And the majority of the scientific heroes of history did not make that presumption.
I found Hutchinson’s phraseology interesting and I think it is apt: “The presumption that the laws of nature are inviolable is just not a doctrine of science.”
A doctrine of science. I leave it to the reader to decide if science ought to have doctrines or if, as Professor Hutchinson says, “Science’s method and its program is to describe the universe insofar as it is repeatable and follows universal laws, but science hasn’t got the slightest need to extrapolate that method and program into a presumption that everything that happens must be so describable.”
I must also leave it to the reader to decide which of these eminent scientists is “doctrinally correct” and what that correctness means. However, when one of the most significant charges against religion is that it is absolutist, and one of the chief virtues alleged of science is that it evolves, I have to question the logic of the Doctrine of Inviolability.
As far as we can discern, everything in nature evolves, up to and including the universe, itself, to say nothing of our understanding of it. The idea that the laws of nature are inviolable seems to fly in the face of that. Moreover, it leads to the hubristic idea that once we have understood a law of nature, we need question it no further.
And that made me think of this passage from the writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, in which He says that, “Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead.” He concludes his comments with a question—a pertinent one in view of the subject of this blog: “Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?”
Next time: Refuting the Trinity (no, not THAT Trinity)