‘Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon.’ Fodor, J. ‘Why Pigs don’t have wings,’ London Review of Books, 18th Oct 2007

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Review of Richard Dawkins on The God Delusion

On Wednesday 25th August (More4, 9-11pm) I watched the second of Richard Dawkins' new series ('Age of Reason') The God Delusion.

If you missed it, don't worry: there really was nothing new. It transpired that the two-hour programme was not new, but put together from his two-part The Root of Evil? series (Channel 4, January 2006 – for an article by Dawkins on its theme see Dawkins, 2006). He did not take the opportunity to alter anything. All his crass statements were left intact: faith is 'belief without reason', a 'brain virus', 'process of non-thinking', 'strange distorted mindset', 'elephant in the room' 'profound contradiction of science', 'discourages independent thought, is divisive and dangerous', 'slippery slope that leads to young men with knapsacks on the Tube', 'a delusion', 'a crutch', 'betrayal of the Enlightenment', 'suspension of critical faculties'. And so it goes on and on.

Intelligent Design (ID) is defined and dismissed as "God helped evolution along". He still believes that a gradual grassy slope is to be found on the other side of the sheer cliffs of every Mount Improbable. For him, rejection of evolution = rejection of science.

In the programme Roman Catholicism is represented by pilgrims and church leaders at Lourdes, Judaism and Islam are represented by scenes of worhippers and by individuals who are interviewed, and Evangelical Christianity is represented by Ted Haggard of the New Life Church, Colorado Springs, USA. There was certainly footage here to make many Christians cringe, but, if you look for it, you can find such examples to use against any tradition, secular as well as religious. That kind of implicit ad hominem attack should have no place in serious scholarship – or programming. What a state we have come to when all the main Channels broadcast such insults to intelligence – and to common sense.

A freethinkers group in the US was interviewed. They feel on the defensive, saying that their jobs are under threat from Christian fascism. It is they who are the beleaguered minority. Many Christian academics will be very surprised (see Bergman, 2008)

As in the source series, there was no engagement with serious critics. For those programmes, professor Alister McGrath was interviewed by Dawkins about his book Dawkins' God and about faith in general. However the interview was not included in the final cut. After this was pointed out by McGrath, Dawkins, to his credit, did make the unedited footage available (Dawkins & McGrath, 2006)

In an article well worth reading in its entirety, Madeleine Bunting (2006) summed up the source series well: “By all means, let's have a serious debate about religious belief, one of the most complex and fascinating phenomena on the planet, but the suspicion is that it's not what this chorus wants. Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there's the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again. …a piece of intellectually lazy polemic which is not worthy of a great scientist.”

As Bunting noted, “Sadly, there is no evolution of thought in Dawkins's position; he has been saying much the same thing about religion for a long time.” I really do not understand how he can be repeating the same tired old arguments in exactly the same terms over so many years. It is so contrary to my own experience and surely to that of any serious scholar? Your experience grows all the time, criticisms cause you to reframe arguments, revise them, or even give them up, because you are forced to conclude that you got the particular matter wrong. Your world view changes and develops, altering the way you present material. When it comes to science and religion, I see no such process with Dawkins. In particular, he just seems to completely ignore scholarly criticism.

Once you have decided that there is no God, and that all real knowledge is obtained through reason and science, then Dawkins’ conclusions are inevitable. This highlights that the debate is not simply a debate over logic or evidence, but rather much more over worldviews and presuppositions. It is therefore important to turn the tables, to hold Dawkins' feet to the fire, to put his materialism under the critical spotlight. (In this regard I would highly recommend Wilson, 2007 – actually a response to Sam Harris, but it applies to all the new atheists). If you reflect on the question, "If we are just complicated, deterministic, chemical machines in a godless universe, then what do we teach the children in school?", it puts the issue of faith schools in a very different light.

The naive worldview commitments of the ruling materialists in science should be exposed to critical scrutiny, as should the scientific absurdities of the arguments for materialistic evolution – especially the real ‘elephant in the room’, the origin of the specified information and the nano-machines that utilise it, which are so crucial to all biological functioning.

The ID movement has it precisely right when it follows that two-pronged strategy. Constructive debate is impossible unless all participants are willing to put their worldview commitments on the table and allow them, as well as their scientific arguments, to be exposed to rigorous critique.
Jerry Bergman, Slaughter of the Dissidents, Leafcutter Press, 2008
Madeleine Bunting, No wonder atheists are angry: they seem ready to believe anything, Guardian, Saturday 07 January 2006
accessed 29 August 2010)
Richard Dawkins, Is religion the root of all evil?, Belfast Telegraph, 06 January 2006
accessed 29 August 2010)
Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath, 2006, Root of All Evil? Uncut Interviews:
accessed 29 August 2010 (takes you to the google video listed below)
accessed 29 August 2010
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxc0NpTZE18 , accessed 29 August 2010
Douglas Wilson, Letter from a Christian Citizen, American Vision, 2007
By Dr Arthur Jones

Review of Richard Dawkins on Faith School Menace?

On Wednesday 18th August (More4, 9-10pm) I watched the first of Richard Dawkins' new series ('Age of Reason' - what a cheek!). The programme was titled 'Faith School Menace?' For an earlier article on the same theme see Dawkins, 2001.

The programme contained nothing new – we have heard it all in previous Dawkins' programmes. It has the look and feel of a party political election broadcast. It entirely lacked balance or objectivity, whether historical or contemporary. Isn't it amazing (well, not really!) that he has seemingly endless TV programmes to promote his atheist faith. If Christians were allowed even one such programme today, all hell would break loose. It will be a test of liberal commentators to see how they review it.

We were treated to the arch-apostle of science making numerous statements for which he cited no scientific evidence. What ‘evidence’ he gave was anecdotal, selective and biased. “The programme was more interested in scaremongering than in what actually happens.” (Ainsworth, 2010) For example, Dawkins started by telling us how terrible it was that 1 in 3 British schools is now a faith school. Really? Clearly, like any good scientist, he needs to start by defining his terms – which he never does. What he should have said was 'schools with a church link' which is not at all the same thing as schools that really allow Christian faith (in particular a Christian worldview) to control what they do in education. Relatively, very few Church schools do the latter. Indeed Leslie Francis' research has shown that the majority of Church schools have no influence on a child's faith or even have a negative influence – i.e. compared to non-church schools (Francis, 1995; Kay and Francis, 1996). But throughout the programme Dawkins showed no interest in scientific evidence for his assertions.

Of course, for Dawkins, anything to do with (Christian) faith in schools is indoctrination and faith should be excluded from all schools (except Dawkins' faith of course). Evolution (undefined, but most will understand it as universal common descent) is a FACT. It is a FACT that we evolved from apes. In fact we ARE apes. He told a (state-funded) Muslim school that they can't win by questioning evolution, but must interpret the Koran to fit with evolution, just as Christians have done with their Bible. (He found that all of the Muslim year 10 pupils rejected evolution.)

He asserted that Faith schools prevent social cohesion (again contrary to the research evidence as regards most of them). We were shown Dawkins speaking to children in a (non church) primary school, telling them not to believe anything on the basis of tradition, authority or revelation, but only on the basis of reason and evidence. He is clearly inexperienced in engaging young children and they were visibly disinterested. But imagine the media reaction if a Christian was filmed doing that kind of assembly!

There's is lots more I could report, but hopefully that gives the flavour. If you have watched previous Dawkins' programmes then you have seen it all before. Only one person, an Irish educationist, was included putting the pressure on Dawkins and asking him to admit his illiberal position. However at least one commentator, Keith Watson in the Metro, regarded the Irishman’s persistence as evidence of a closed mind! Knowing what happened in his previous programmes (serious critique either not sought, or left on the cutting room floor – see blog on the second programme in this series) I wonder who else was filmed, but not included?

On the widespread practice of pretending to find God – which many parents do every year in order to secure their child a place in faith schools, which are often educationally outstanding – Dawkins (in an interview with The Times, available, at a price, at: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/faith/article2690948.ece - see Sefton, 2010), has shown “an unsurprisingly evolutionarily adaptive attitude” (Sefton, ibid):

"I don't want to cast any blame on them," he said. "It's hypocrisy that is imposed on them by a ridiculous and unjust system."

Dawkins even said that if he were in the same situation, he might do the same. "Since I have absolutely no belief at all, I wouldn't be betraying anything." Commenters (at Sefton, 2010) rightly noted that this was a charter for unethical behaviour that could be used to justify just about anything (emphasis added). Dawkins is constantly going on about 'reason' and 'evidence', but when it comes to religion and faith, he ignores the evidence and abandons reason.
Janina Ainsworth, Faith School Menace? Church Mouse Blog, posted 20 August 2010 (http://churchmousepublishing.blogspot.com/2010/08/exclusive-faith-school-menace-by-revd.html#comments , accessed 27/8/2010)
Richard Dawkins, No Faith in the Absurd, Times Education Supplement (London) 23/02/2001, page 17, http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=343917 , accessed 29 August 2010)
Leslie Francis, Church schools and pupil attitudes towards Christianity: a response to Mairi Levitt, British Journal of Religious Education, 17 (3), 1995, pp 133-139.
William Kay & Leslie Francis, Drift from the Churches: Attitude toward Christianity during Childhood and Adolescence, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996, 266 pp.
Eliot Sefton, Dawkins: faith schools should teach all religion, The First Post [The Week], 18 August 2010
(http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/67378,people,news,richard-dawkins-force-faith-schools-to-teach-all-religion-education-atheism , accessed 28 August 2010
Keith Watson, Inside the Box: What Keith Watson Saw Last Night, Metro, 19/08/2010, page 36 (http://e-edition.metro.co.uk/2010/08/19/ , page 40, accessed 19 August 2010)

For other commentary on the programme or on Dawkins’ views on education, see:
Christian Institute, Dawkins calls for more interference in faith schools, christian.org.uk, posted 27 August 2010 (http://www.christian.org.uk/news/dawkins-calls-for-more-interference-in-faith-schools/?e270810 , accessed 27/08/2010
Huw Clayton (Doctor Huw), Dawkins, Myths and Dangers, Doctor Huw blog, posted 21 August 2010 (http://doctorhuw.wordpress.com/2010/08/21/dawkins-myths-and-dangers/ , accessed 27/8/2010)
Brian Hutt, Church educationalist rejects Dawkins’ ‘scaremongering’ over faith schools, Christian Today, posted 20 August 2010
(http://www.christiantoday.com/article/church.educationalist.rejects.dawkins.scaremongering.over.faith.schools/26547.htm, accessed 27 August 2010)
Phillip Johnson, Darwinism is Materialist Mythology, Not Science, Direction Magazine (Elim, UK), October 2004
Ben Leach, Richard Dawkins: 'faith schools should not be allowed to opt out of religious education', Daily Telegraph, posted 18 August 2010
(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7951358/Richard-Dawkins-faith-schools-should-not-be-allowed-to-opt-out-of-religious-education.html , accessed 27 August 2010)
Paul Melanson, Richard Dawkins and the Battle for Humankind’s Future, Dallas Blog, posted 19 August 2010 (http://www.dallasblog.com/201008191006959/guest-viewpoint/richard-dawkins-and-the-battle-for-humankind-s-future.html , accessed 27/08/2010)
David Robertson, David Robertson responds to Richard Dawkins – Faith Schools Menace?, You Tube, posted 26 August 2010 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIZdYgvah0Y )
By Dr Arthur Jones

Monday, 23 August 2010

Dawkins - the New Spanish Inquisitor ?

Apparently Richard Dawkins has been presenting his new series 'Age of Reason' on the fringe More4 Channel (Wednesday 18th August, 9-10pm), and has again been filming in the classroom to challenge school children about their beliefs. His zeal and desire to root out Darwin heretics in schools reminds me of that of a Spanish inquisitor. Although, he says that he wishes faith schools to teach about all religion in the classroom there would seem to be little room for respect for other's beliefs in Dawkins a-theology.

Dawkins in fact wishes to bring faith schools to an end even though he acknowledges that their teaching standards are often better than secular schools. So good in fact that he would be willing to lie to get his children into one. He comments that he does not blame those atheists who pretend to be religious in order to get their children into the best faith schools, and comments that as he has 'absolutely no belief at all, I wouldn't be betraying anything' by lying and pretending to be religious The First Post on Dawkins

But what he does not seem to understand is that the quality of the education in faith schools is to do with their ethos. Dawkins own words reveal that he is willing to destroy the very thing, the values, that make faith schools so good and to offer a set of values instead that allow children and adults to tell lies. I can't believe that Dawkins is so naive that he cannot see the sad irony here. If he can tell lies to get children into a good school, then why not also 'tell lies for Darwin.' His admission of a willingness to lie also does not lend itself to trust, nor does it give good reasons to listen to him about education or Darwin.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Stephen Hawking Takes on God

Next month will see the publication of the latest books by two heavyweights in science: Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. One claims to be an “extraordinary new view of the universe” and the other claims to give “new answers to the questions of life”.

Stephen Hawking needs no introduction. The disabled theoretical physicist who held the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years is known worldwide for his bestselling book ‘A Brief History of Time’. Outside of scientific circles, Professor Sir Roger Penrose may not be quite as well known, but he is another top theoretical physicist and the bestselling author of ‘The Road to Reality’. He is currently Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics which he shared with Stephen Hawking for their joint contribution to our understanding of the universe.

In a curious coincidence, on 23 September The Bodley Head Ltd will publish ‘Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe’ by Sir Roger, and on 9 September Bantam Press publish Stephen Hawking’s ‘The Grand Design: New Answers to the Questions of Life’.

Because of his fame in the wider world, Stephen Hawking’s book will probably receive the greater publicity, especially as it is his first major book in nearly a decade. But both books attempt to do the same thing in different ways: solve the mysteries of the universe.

In Hawking’s case, the title of the book has clear religious overtones. And from the publisher’s blurb, it is clear that Hawking is intent on offering science as an alternative to religious belief about the origins of the universe. Not content with answering the purely physical question of “When and how did the universe begin?”, Hawking goes further and enters metaphysical territory: “Why are we here? What is the nature of reality? Is the apparent ‘grand design’ of our universe evidence for a benevolent creator who set things in motion? Or does science offer another explanation?” Hawking is our “guide to discoveries that are altering our understanding and threatening some of our most cherished belief systems”. ‘The Grand Design’ “will inform – and provoke – like no other.”

Hawking seems intent on using science to supersede religion. But as he wanders into the minefield of religious and philosophical questions, it is increasingly clear that science comes up short. His book “explains the latest thoughts about model-dependent realism (the idea that there is no one version of reality), and about the multiverse concept of reality in which there are many universes. There are new ideas about the top-down theory of cosmology (the idea that there is no one history of the universe, but that every possible history exists).”

If science accepts that there are many versions of reality and a multiplicity of histories of the universe, science actually loses its ability to tell us anything useful about the world. Science has been successful because, in the main, it is able to tell us the truth about the world we live in. It tells us how things work, what they’re made of, and why things happen as they do, and to a certain extent how things got to be how they are today. But if there is no definite reality and no definite history, then science can no longer be a guide to truth. At this point it departs into speculation, and so has no more claim to truth than religion or philosophy.

Unfortunately, possibly because of his own difficult life experiences, it would seem that Hawking wants to challenge belief in a divine Creator by bending science to the task. In that respect, he follows another great name in science. Charles Darwin also lost belief in a God who personally interacts with people due to the suffering he experienced in life, and set out to devise a theory that would explain that suffering – a dog-eat-dog world of ‘survival of the fittest’. In Darwin’s view, God didn’t intervene in the world to prevent suffering so he can’t have been involved in the world at all – except as perhaps the one who lit the blue touchpaper to set the world in motion at the beginning.

Hawking, it seems, wants to take even that involvement away from God. Perhaps he has been influenced by Richard Dawkins, who has praised Darwin for explaining life without God, and is longing for someone to explain the universe without God.

Prof Penrose comes to the cosmic table from a slightly different direction to Hawking, but also seeks to explain the universe. His new book attempts to answer what came before the Big Bang. Hitherto that’s been acknowledged by most scientists as one arena that’s best left to God, since science has been unable to look behind that curtain. But Penrose aims to “show how the expected ultimate fate of our accelerating, expanding universe can actually be reinterpreted as the 'Big Bang' of a new one”. In other words, his theory is that time – and the universe – recycles itself.

It’s a very green-friendly sounding proposal, appropriate for the environmentally-aware times we live in. But I guess we would have to wait billions of years to find out if his theory is proved correct – until our universe itself ends – to find out if it has, in the process, created a new one all by itself!

It seems from the anticipated content of the book that Penrose is proposing something that approximates more to the Hindu view of the universe. The Hindu cosmology proposes that the big bang is not the beginning of everything but just the start of the present cycle, preceded by an infinite number of universes and to be followed by another infinite number of universes. Perhaps Penrose was reading his Rig Veda (Hindu scripture) before he came up with his idea.

Hawking’s rather loose view on reality might also accord more with Buddhism than atheism: Buddhists posit neither an ultimate beginning nor a final end to the universe, but see the universe as something in flux, passing in and out of existence, parallel to an infinite number of other universes doing the same thing.

Perhaps we should look not at highly speculative theories for a better understanding of the universe but at the hard facts that are more scientifically testable. What we do know is that the universe is incredibly precise and ‘fine-tuned’ for life on earth to exist. If the forces in the universe had been set up just a tiny bit wrong, there would be no “life as we know it, Jim” (apologies to non-Star Trek fans). The list of physical constants that are finely balanced in this way is as long as your arm. As Hawking says in his earlier book ‘A Brief History of Time’: “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”

Leading theoretical physics professor Paul Davies – another best-selling science writer – is more open about this. He states: “The really amazing thing is not that life on Earth is balanced on a knife-edge, but that the entire universe is balanced on a knife-edge, and would be total chaos if any of the natural 'constants' were off even slightly. You see, even if you dismiss man as a chance happening, the fact remains that the universe seems unreasonably suited to the existence of life – almost contrived – you might say a ‘put-up job.’”

Michael Turner, astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and Fermilab, describes the fine-tuning of the universe like this: “The precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bullseye one millimetre in diameter on the other side.”

This incredible accuracy speaks of an Intelligent Designer behind the universe. Penrose holds no religious beliefs and is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association, yet he himself has to admit that both human consciousness and the fine-tuning of the universe are mysterious. In The Emperor's New Mind (1989), he argued that known laws of physics are inadequate to explain the phenomenon of consciousness, and in the film version of ‘A Brief History of Time’, he said: "There is a certain sense in which I would say the universe has a purpose. It's not there just somehow by chance. Some people take the view that the universe is simply there and it runs along… and we happen by accident to find ourselves in this thing. I don't think that's a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it, about its existence, which we have very little inkling of at the moment.”

Physicist Tony Rothman says: "When confronted with the order and beauty of the universe and the strange coincidences of nature, it's very tempting to take the leap of faith from science into religion. I am sure many physicists want to. I only wish they would admit it."

I’ll leave the last word to mathematical physics professor Frank Tipler: “When I began my career as a cosmologist some 20 years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.”
Andrew Halloway

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Discrimination of Christians in the Classroom ?

There is an interesting piece on Education and Christian belief in the Times Higher Education Supplement.
Stop Turning the Other Cheek - Times Higher Education Supplement