Tuesday, 29 April 2008

God bothering

Attended another of the Christians in Science series of seminars last night. This one was by someone I'd not heard of before, a mathematician from Oxford University called John Lennox. Obviously, this immediately added a dose of confirmation to the theory that mathematicians are more religious than physicists, who are more religious than chemists, who are more religious then biologists. Although the evil Alister McGrath does disrupt this somewhat by, once upon a time, being a biochemist.

Anyway, much like one of the previous speakers, John Polkinghorne, Lennox was a rather affable and capable speaker [*], and similarly he covered much of the same ground, ending up on familiar topics such as the fine-tuned universe and information theory. An important thrust of his seminar was that theism is the most rational standpoint to take on ultimate questions.

This latter point was quite deftly pulled off in the seminar given that it's total bunk. But Lennox was very good on a form of agreeable sophistry. A few rhetorical flourishes and he had the audience laughing and nodding along with him while accepting quite debatable points. While naturalism happily admits that it (currently) stops short of ultimate origins, Lennox (and fellow travellers) are happy to postulate an omnipotent creator god out of nowhere (and in the absence of any evidence), and then go on to describe this as some sort of null hypothesis with the minimum of assumptions. It's a pretty neat trick to be able to pull this sort of stunt off, although his audience was more or less willing him on.

As more-or-less normal for this sort of seminar, the debate was framed as atheism versus theism, with the specifics of Lennox's religion quietly ignored. Given that Polkinghorne practically went from sensible to crazy-talk within a single sentence when he introduced Jesus, this was probably a smart move from Lennox. It also means that he avoided any chance of offending members of other faiths in attendance. They could draw similar comfort from the seminar as their Christian neighbours. That said, it feels to me like it would be churlish to bring this up as a post-seminar question. It shouldn't, since it's a perfectly valid point, but it strikes me as seemingly giving up ground by attacking on another front. Also, having seen the evil McGrath questioned this way, I've seen how easily a sufficiently fork-tongued speaker can obfuscate and dodge this sort of question.

One point I'm always less clear on is whenever information theory is dragged into these sorts of discussion. It's not because I'm not well-versed in it (though I'm not), but more because my instinctive reaction is to view the statements of information theorists (who may or may not be being misquoted) as clever-sounding nonsense. Similarly to the concept of entropy in ecology, statements on information theory always sound superficially convincing (usually a speaker will venerate Gödel in there somewhere) but are too vacuous or intangible to follow easily. Lennox spoke at length about the complexity of DNA and the seeming impossibility of "creating information", but it sounded bogus from start to finish. Partly, I think, because it seems pretty obvious to me that, given enough time and a large enough planet, trillions of chance events between trillions of molecules can lead to the assembly of some form of minimally complex replicator. Evolutionary processes (duplication, mutation, natural selection) can then operate upon these replicators to generate the sort of complexity that Lennox et al. think is so difficult to explain. Or perhaps I'm just completely missing the point?

Anyway, in summary, having seen yet another of these Christians in Science seminars, I'm beginning to discern a pattern:

1. frame the debate as atheism against theism (act as if agnosticism doesn't exist)

2. use lots of quotations from famous thinkers (the argument from authority works in these seminars), and from both sides as well to give some impression of balance

3. avoid taking the seminar into a discussion of a particular faith (avoiding the Polkinghorne crazy-talk trap)

4. introduce the fine-tuned universe and the physical constants involved (the charge on a proton sounds a concrete thing)

5. information theory, fledgling though it may well be, is your friend (it's complicated enough to sound convincing, but too complicated to follow)

6. steer carefully around the mysterious, but confidently talk as though theism is the only rational response to the world

Stick to these points and, with a lay audience, you're onto a winner!

[*] Since I hadn't started this blog when I saw him, I should add that McGrath, by contrast, was a rather disreputable and disingenuous speaker who carefully misrepresented the arguments of others. That said, he did it very well, and quite convincingly, I'm sure, to some people. Definitely something of the corrupt defence lawyer about him. I spent much of his seminar rolling my eyes at his audaciousness.

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