Friday, October 12, 2007

Comments on the Dawkins - Lennox Debate

(Link to audio for the debate.)

From akakiwibear in a comment at Debunking Christianity:
BUT both Dawkins and Lennox made good points that should have stimulated real discussion rather than the self affirming comments I read
I won't comment on other responses, but my initial opinion was that there was little to no actual discussion at all due to the format and that John Lennox's position alternated between factually false or (perhaps worse) entirely vacuous.
But, assured by akakiwibear's comment that Lennox's statements are a fair representation of Christianity and while I'm sitting here too ill to go out and enjoy the weekend, I'm going to listen to the debate again and try to better understand and then respond to Lennox's position. I've been short on ideas for posts lately anyway. And despite being billed as "not a science vs religion" debate, I found the debate fits nicely into the questions I've raised in my last few posts.

First, a statement on the format. After the opening statements, the first portion saw the moderator read one of six quotes from The God Delusion representing the "six major themes" of the book, then Dawkins elaborated for five minutes, and Lennox responsed for five minutes. At the end, both participants were allowed a closing statement. The format provided Dawkins no time to respond to Lennox except his closing statement. This was frustrating for Dawkins and his supportive audience because Lennox's statements were full of mischaracterizations of Dawkins's arguments and blatantly fallacious arguments.

Opening statement.
Despite later stating he is not a post-modernist, that his god represents the "ultimate truth behind everything", and emphasizing that religion can be supported by evidence, Lennox opens by stating that each of us has individual answers to the big questions life throws at us. This may be true, but if truth is singular, then the answers to certain questions under debate must have one and only one correct answer. If Lennox truly believes religion should be debated in a rational way and that God does reveal himself in the universe and the Bible, then it seems to me the opening comment on individual answers was either his attempt at an opening line to a bland grade-school essay or counter to rest of Lennox's argument.

A mathematician and philosopher of science, Lennox states that his parents encouraged him to be intellectually inquisitive because of (not in spite of) their Christian faith. At this point, he doesn't state how the Bible or Christian doctrine encourage intellectual inquisitiveness (c
ertainly the letters of Paul don't with their repeated appeals to his own self-declared revelatory authority). But the Abrahamic religious texts are numerous enough and the doctrines diverse enough that I'm certain there's some combination of interpretations and practices that will get that result. After all, the intellectual curiosity that spawned the Enlightenment arose from a primarily Christian culture, even if not all Christian cultures have produced similar results. Lennox asserts that Biblical Christianity doesn't raise a "firewall" between Christians and the truth, but it's hard for me to see how this can be the case considering the number of fundamentalist/literalist Christians who have difficulty accepting verifiable facts about our universe. Granted, I don't believe Christianity imposes any particular difficulty on discovering truth compared to other supernatural beliefs, but this assertion that Christianity or the Bible are clear and accurate revelations ignores the long history of variation in Biblical interpretation and the variety of Christian reactions to scientific discoveries and socio-cultural progress based upon those interpretations. Christianity is much more complex of a social phenomenon than Lennox wants to give it credit, and we'll see that this is a returning theme.

(Note: It wouldn't surprise me if Lennox would claim I've misrepresented his position here, but he said surprisingly little about the Bible and evidence for Christianity despite the fact that he made it the foundation for his argument. I was very disappointed in this regard. There will be more of this below.)

Counter to what I believe Lennox seems to be implying atheists believe, I wouldn't personally claim that atheism necessarily encourages rationality. Likewise, rationality only encourages an agnostic atheism as a default position in a world that does not provide the evidence necessary to prove any available religion (even then, rationality would deny coming to an absolute conclusion). Lennox briefly mentions that he studied "systematic exposure to atheism" in Eastern Europe during the Soviet era, but he will return to this point latter, so I'll save more for then.

Lennox states that he is opposed to any religion that asserts itself through force, including self-proclaimed Christian, and I think Dawkins and I can agree that we'd feel the same way about any atheism that asserted itself through force.

In any case, Lennox begins the debate by stating that the outcome should be determined by evidence. We'll see how he does in what follows.

First Theme: Faith is blind, science is evidence based.
Lennox agrees that science is evidence based and is correct to be so, but he asserts that some faith is based on evidence. According to him, faith is only as "robust" as the evidence that supports it. He agrees with Dawkins that blind faith can be very dangerous, but at the end of this section, Dawkins and Lennox debate the definition of faith. It seems clear that they're at least both distinguishing assertions based on evidence from those that are not. Whether we call an acceptance of the general model of evolution faith is really immaterial to distinguishing it from any belief that has no supporting evidence. What's agreed on here is that the strength of a claim is in the evidence that supports it.

On reasonable faith, Lennox states
faith in the Christian sense is not blind, and indeed, I do not know a serious Christian who thinks it is.
He claims part of the evidence for Christian faith is objective, based upon science and history. Unless I've missed something, he never provides a shread of this legitimate, objective evidence. The other part of the evidence for Christianity is subjective (experience). I would say that calling personal experience "evidence" is wrong or misleading, but Lennox makes no other references to this line of evidence either (except for the occasional appeal to personal in/credulity).

Lennox also states that
What is beyond science is not necessarily irrational.
For example, science cannot tell us whether a work of art is beautiful. I find this a rather ridiculous line of inquiry. For the example stated, the human experience of aesthetics is fully within the realm of science, and though I haven't read much work on it, I'm certain there are blossoming subfields in the cognitive sciences that focus on questions about the human experience of beauty. Of course, science cannot tell us whether a flower is beautiful, but neither can any less rational field of study. Science can however tell us whether a random selection of humans (perhaps from some specific culture) are likely to find a particular flower beautiful.

The other questions Lennox raises that are presumably outside the realm of science are of the sort who am I?, what is my purpose?, and where am I going? The very asking of these questions (in their broadest, metaphysical senses) assumes that there must be an answer, and I'm not entirely convinced that that is the case. Without further definitions and a body of knowledge
currently beyond human observation, the questions aren't going to lead to insightful inquiry. That science cannot answer these questions is no surprise then because there is no way to answer these questions meaningfully (at present at least).

Lennox admits that Christians have been lazy in using the god of the gaps argument, but asserts that there are some gaps that science opens but cannot fill. As an example, he names the physical constants, which are certainly a mystery but not exactly one that science has no hope of answering. He makes a distinction between good gaps and bad gaps, but gives us no measure for determining which gaps are which. He brings up the point of Newton, which is rather disappointing. The gaps Newton insisted only a god could explain are gaps that are now being filled in. That Newton made the argument is no reason for us to continue using it, particularly since his case has ultimately failed.

Lennox also makes a comment that science came about because humans expected law in nature due to a belief in a supreme lawgiver. This may be accurate historically, but current psychology is uncovering a great deal of over-activity in the human cognitive systems for recognizing ordered or causal relationships. That humans expect there to be a lawgiver is no more an argument for a lawgiver than a child's intuition that liquids can spontaneously change volume and mass is evidence that liquids do not obey the law of conservation of mass and energy.

Second Theme: Science supports atheism, not Christianity.
(Seemingly disagreeing with the moderator's wording of the theme, Dawkins tries to re-characterizes this theme as something like: supernaturalism and naturalism are incompatible world views. He disagrees with Gould's non-overlapping magisterium model and asserts that a universe with a god should be distinguishable from a universe without a god.)

Lennox admits that the methods of science are appropriate for evaluating Christianity and claims that Christianity is falsifiable. I would very much like to hear how we can go about falsifying Christianity from his perspective, because it seems these experiments are long overdo.

Lennox claims that atheism undermines science because science requires a faith in the rationality of the universe. He is wrong on this: science only requires the assumption that the universe is inherently rational. Science is quite capable of providing evidence that the universe is irrational, and any good scientist would have to admit that, in the end, our the assumption of a rational universe could be wrong. In the social sciences, we often find earlier assumptions dispelled as new evidence comes in, sometimes in the direction of irrationality (or, to put more accurately, in the direction of increased complexity/chaos).

Throughout, Lennox is assuming that a rational universe requires a designer. If the universe is rational, it seems much simpler to me to state that this rationality arises from the inherent and immutable properties of matter and energy. This leads us to the issue of reductionism and Lennox's misrepresentation of it. He attempts to form a paradox when he states that atheism and materialism should lead us to question the very validity of statements made by matter-based beings. I'm not entirely sure why he thinks this paradox works, but it seems the only way to make it work is to deny both that physical entities can interact with other physical entities and that cognition is an emergent property of a sufficiently organized neural network.

Lennox also throws out the pointless tidbit that the Bible predicted that our universe has a beginning. Dawkins is quite right to point that the prediction isn't a good test for the truth of the Biblical account as there were only two possibilities to begin with. In this exchange, Lennox also overlooks that science's discovery that the universe has a beginning is an example of science being able to self correct itself, even when the corrections are perceived as irrational (e.g., science has indicated that our universe has a definite beginning, even though current logic tells us that leads to problems). Laughably, Lennox tells us that the books of Moses accurately describe the creation of the universe. Has he not paid any attention to the debates on evolution? From my understanding of the current historical evidence, the Talmud isn't even accurate in describing early human society or the early history of the Hebrews (Adam, Eve, the Flood, and the exodus plagues need to go, for starters).

Lennox also mentions the phrase a "universe created out of nothing", which is a tired assumption on his part. The singularity before the big bang effectively erased all evidence of what was in existence (if anything was) before the big bang. At present, we have no evidence from any dimension or entity that was not a product of the big bang. Lennox is invoking a "bad" gap here, and it's rather ridiculous of him to do so after condemning gaps earlier.

Third Theme: Design is dead, otherwise one must explain who designed the designer.
In this exchange, Lennox is of course right that evolution does not explain abiogenesis. Although, just as Dawkins simplified his argument so far that he missed that mistake, Lennox leaves out that contemporary theories of abiogenesis are well on their way toward explaining the process. (It's another bad gap, in other words. Have there been any good gaps yet?)

Lennox chides Dawkins for using the "old schoolboy argument" in the question who created god? I feel the need to derail this post by referencing the Firesign Theater's The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra. On the first side, Hemlock Stones examines a coded message and remarks that any simple English school boy could solve it. He then asks his assistant to retrieve a copy of Simple English Schoolboy Codes (or some similarly ridiculous title). A simple argument is not necessarily a bad argument. In this case, Lennox's response left me wanting. He has simply defined a god that is beyond the realm of plausibility from which the question assumes without presenting any verifiable evidence to justify that leap. Until theists begin to earnestly formulate methods of independent inquiry into divinity and eternity, I'm afraid I can't accept an explanationless eternal creator. Considering how long this specific debate has been in circulation, I doubt it will be solved by any comment I have to make. So I will leave it at that, but if any one does have extra-Biblical evidence, please feel free to comment.

To support his position, Lennox makes an analogy that I found particularly lame: the one about scratch marks discovered in a cave. Dawkins is correct in his criticism on this: the creator of the scratch marks, a human, is a result of long and incredibly complex physical and biological processes. Furthermore, we have extensive evidence from independent lines of inquiry verifying that human beings do exist. We have no such evidence for eternal creators.

During part of this exchange, Lennox comments that physical structures like DNA, with a "semiotic" dimension to them, are proof of some god, but he is again ignoring the physical reality. The "meaning" of DNA - if we must call it that - is expressed in physical form. The relationship between signifier gene and signified biological characteristic have a direct physical relationship. Within modern evolutionary theory, this relationship hardly requires the intervention of a creator.

Lennox also ignorantly confuses complexity in the physical sense with his own difficulty in understanding a concept. Dawkins calls him out on this one, though he doesn't spend much time on it.

Fourth Theme: Christianity is dangerous.
Lennox states that he is ashamed of some Christians, particularly paying attention to the Crusaders. He claims that these men were not truly following Christ, but this particular debate reveals a fault on his part more serious than the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In asking us to imagine a "world without atheism", Lennox dredges forth the usual names of Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot (though he thankfully leaves out Hitler). Regardless of what such figures and the movements they represent thought of atheism and regardless of whether they viewed it as the basis for their ideologies and campaigns, the simple point is that atheism has no doctrine. Lennox even tosses in a lie about Dawkins's claims, stating that Dawkins has insisted that atheists never engage in genocide or other horrible acts. Atheism has no universally accepted texts, and has here-and-there arisen independently throughout history. Nothing can be considered the necessary result of atheism because there have been many types of atheism, as there have been many types of religion, and to the best of my knowledge, a lack of belief in gods doesn't reliable predict personality archetype, political beliefs, or ethical judgments. For any human feature we can measure, it's likely that you'll find atheists at every point along the curve.

Like his lazy dismissal of earlier Christian doctrines as not truly Christian (despite their historical influence on modern doctrines and practices), Lennox is ignoring psychological and sociological diversity as meaningful predictors of human behavior and human beliefs. He specifically refuses to discuss anything Dawkins phrases in terms of Zeus or Wotan because these are "created gods", but he fails to see how his own religious beliefs and practices can be explained with equal validity as products of human imagination and culture. He's failing to look at his own religion objectively.

I admire that Dawkins has tried not to speak of individual acts of evil but only in general terms on the effects of supernaturalism on human actions, but I disagree that supernaturalism ultimately encourages evil more so than any other world view. Human beliefs and actions largely depend upon individual characteristics and the culturally environment in which that individual finds herself. Certain beliefs may lead to violence moreso than others, but I'm not convinced supernaturalism is one of those beliefs.

Fifth Theme: We do not need god in order to be good or evil.
Lennox once again misrepresents Dawkins's argument, asking and answering a question he alone raised:
Can an atheist be good? Of course.
At last moving on with the evidence that he mentioned way back at the start, Lennox believes that our common moral core is evidence for the Biblical claim that we are moral beings made in the image of his god. With all the interesting studies being done on altruism and deception among social animals, I'm surprised he can honestly maintain that belief.

Lennox questions whether we can have a foundation for the concepts good and evil without a creator, and correctly quotes The Devil's Chaplin on the fact that science cannot provide a solution. Science can explain why we have the perception of events being good and evil and anthropology can relate our varying experiences to cultural phenomena. Like many Christians who have commented on the failure of atheism to provide a foundation for morality, he seems particularly unable to give up the idea that morality requires a logical or absolute foundation despite the lack of evidence supporting such an idea. (If commenter wishes to continue to assert that absolute morality exists, be warned, I will expect a functioning model of human-absolute interaction.) Like others, Lennox ignores that Christian morality has continously been evolving in response to other cultural pressures, that other cultures consider Christians immoral (say, for eating meat), and that absolute morality introduces a paradox of a creator who either arbitrarily decides what is good or evil or is limited by an external source of morality.

During this exchange, Lennox asks how there can be any part of us that can rebel against our genes and thereby once again tellingly equates the atheist view with his particularly limited approach to reductionism. Each time he makes the mistake, I'm further convinced that he hasn't truly attempted to understand the physical phenomena involved but

Lennox also states that a pitiless universe removes the very categories of good an evil, because there is no absolute on which to define them. If that's the case, then I posit that the lack of absolutes also removes the categories Christian, Marxist, and John Lennox. Does this require Lennox to make his god the source of these categories as well?

Sixth Theme: Christian claims about the person of Christ are not true.
Here Lennox makes some laughable claims about the universal acceptance of the Gospel of Luke as history, even referring to the author as Luke. I'm not sure how to even respond to that.

Lennox picks at Dawkins's characterization of Christianity as being an expression of ingroup/outgroup morality, and I'm not personally interested in that debate. Nor am I interested on whether miracles violate the laws of nature or not. The former is a historical and sociological debate, which Lennox, Dawkins, and myself aren't informed enough to enter (and I'm not particularly thrilled with the way they've set up the discussion). The latter is, in my opinion, utterly nonsensical to debate as the religious can simply define a miracle as whatever they like.

Lennox makes the usual criticism of Dawkins for not reading theologists and for quoting laypersons instead. It's my understanding that Dawkins's was less concerned with the theologists who have defined their god out of the picture than with the fundamentalists and evangelicals who are doing real, measurable damage to our world and culture. Like most of philosophy, I tend to find that theologists tend to argue well but have difficulty selecting verifiable and meaningful premises from which to argue. I don't feel qualified to enter the debate on the historicity of Jesus and his miracles.

Concluding Remarks
Lennox's concluding remarks on the garden misses the entire point on the distinction between the supernatural and the natural. He makes one final appeal to that evidence promised to us by saying "the evidence is all around you." Right. And I thought we agreed we weren't invoking the god of the gaps argument?

Lennox's less than stirring discussion of judgment day and ressurection is an astounding let-down after hearing about his evidence-based faith. Christ's resurrection, he claims, is the "central evidence" of his faith. Hearing that, I felt robbed of my time. That's the proof I was waiting to hear? His final remark left me speechless in its vacuousness.
If there is no ressurection, if there is no life after death, the terrorists will have gotten away with it.
I don't want to repeat some of Sam Harris's less than truthful generalizations, but... the terrorists don't believe in life after death?

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