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93 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get to the important bits..., 8 Aug. 2008
This review is from: God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Paperback)
Curious how the most negative reviewers of this book don't seem to engage with it's central points and hence don't seem to have read it properly?

Anyway, there are many good general qualities about this book already addressed by other reviewers. For me the most notable and pressing points of value that Lennox makes are the following:

1) There isn't a necessary tension between science and religion - rather between competing worldviews - most notably (for the purposes of this book) - naturalism and theism. Either one of these basic outlooks can use science legitimately to expand material knowledge, but either one can also quite easily end up using it selectively to fit in with it's ultimate assumptions and aims. So, prescriptive worldviews are the problem. (It was the Aristotelian worldview that Galileo had to overcome - held by secular academics as well as church authorities - not Christianity as such.)

2) 'God of the gaps' can actually be a tag given to naturalists in some cases ('evolution' of the gaps), where gaps in our knowledge are assumed to be obviously fillable by evolutionary processes, ahead of the necessary evidence. However, it can also be applied to areas where science has reached its distant shores and has been left with a logical impasse which it is impotent to cross using experimentation and naturalistic concepts. In other words, it is possible for science and reason to identify and demarkate areas that are inexplicable by scientific investigation itself (- in other words it's not merely a matter of time before they are fixed). There is one area (possibly among others) below where Lennox clearly seems to think that this has happened.

3) DNA - still unexplained in terms of origins, and according to the mathematical prowess of Lennox (using information theory) inexplicable unless you accept that there must be a more fundamental source of information within the universe, from which DNA can have been 'programmed' (my quote marks). Essentially, Lennox draws upon various information theorists to tentatively posit a 'law of conservation of information' which would mean that information (and hence 'intelligence') cannot be built-up from unintelligent inputs, and is hence more fundamental to the design of the universe than previously thought (it is accepted in the case of energy, why not intelligence?). In making this point, Lennox appears to give a damning critique of the explanations used by Richard Dawkins in his book 'Climbing Mount Improbable' where he tries to make the evolution of DNA seem more credible according to Darwinist mechanisms. Possibly I have overly simplified this central proposition of Lennox, but the details are there to be read (should you feel compelled to argue with it), and I'll be damned if I can find, on the internet, any decent responses to the point Lennox is making. It is as if nobody wants to notice, or engage with, such a point. Perhaps some generous and enthusiastic Naturalist can put me straight in the comments section to this review, regarding where Lennox has gone wrong with this proposal, because it seems pretty convincing to me. (and please don't quibble about where 'God' must have got the intelligence from etc - the issue is WHETHER IT IS FUNDAMENTAL OR NOT - we follow the evidence first - then worry about the consequences - right?)

An important point to make, since it relates to the probable expectations of most readers out there, is that Lennox's arguments don't particularly make a case for Christianity - (and he doesn't actually mention it that much) - his arguments point merely towards a creative force and a fundamental property of intelligence within the universe - which of course is compatible with the majority of religious thought (including - although it doesn't necessarily lead to - Christianity)

The five stars are because the book was less dogmatic (religiously) than I expected, and more thought provoking in areas that I thought would have been considered out of bounds by Lennox (evolution), than I was expecting. The pleasure I took here wasn't because I was particularly delighted to give Darwinism a kicking, merely because I wasn't familiar with his arguments and they took me by surprise. Conceivably , admittedly, Lennox could have made almost all the same key points without introducing distinctly Christian allusions at all.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Nov 2008 21:39:40 GMT
Philonous says:
Let me first cite you: "... (and please don't quibble about where 'God' must have got the intelligence from etc - the issue is WHETHER IT IS FUNDAMENTAL OR NOT - we follow the evidence first - then worry about the consequences - right?)"

No, wrong. The issue is whether intelligence can only be explained by intelligence and this puts the theist in a dilemma. Either you answer "no", and then there is no need to posit a god; or you answer "yes" in which case you need to explain the intelligence of the god by referring to an even more "fundamental" (to use your term) intelligence, and then we're off on an infinite regress that does not explain anything at all. This is no quibble. On the contrary, it goes right to the heart of almost all arguments for the existence of a god. Theists want to explain either the existence of our world as such or the existence of some special feature of it (e.g. intelligence) and they do this by positing a god. But of course, such an 'explanation' is really only an explanation if the explanans is better understood than the explanandum. In other words, to substitute one mystery for another is really no explanation at all. That is why it is obviously relevant to ask where the posited god came from. It's amazing how few believers are actually able to see the force of this point. Why do you think "God" is a good explanation for anything if the existence of this "God" is at least as mysterious as anything else in (or out of) the universe?

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Nov 2008 22:54:07 GMT
Last edited by the author on 24 Nov 2008 22:58:06 GMT
ChrisP says:
Sorry, only just noticed you'd posted this comment.

I understand the point you're making, but I think you still miss what I was trying to get at in the quote above. Let's forget notions of God. Let's get away from the "Well if you think everything needs a creator, then you're forced to except that the creator needs a creator etc". Let's actually go with the Materialist notion that things just are, and that's that. The Universe is self explanatory, self creating, self sustaining... whatever. However, let's also play with the idea that according to Lennox's reading of Information Theory, information/intelligence may inevitably have to be a fundamental property of a universe that can give birth to organic life. Now Lennox sees this as combining with other things to point towards a creator God, but it doesn't have to - in itself, it could just be the way things are: We are part of a self-explanatory, energy-rich, information-rich, process driven cosmos. To be honest though, anything which can be described as self-explanatory, requiring no creation, yet possessing energy, process and intelligence sounds to me suspiciously like some form of 'God' anyhow. Throw in the irreducibility of personal conscious experience and this "energetic", intelligent process that we call the universe starts to reek (to many thoughtful people) of meaning and purpose. So perhaps at least some form of Pantheism would seem to be appear quite reasonable, if not Theism. Actually this stance could be argued to explain the totality of the evidence somewhat more satisfyingly than a Materialist creed that posits a self-explanatory, energetic, process-driven, yet IGNORANT universe. Suddenly that notion starts to seem like the one that is far-out, wacky and beyond credulity.

Posted on 8 Dec 2008 00:23:47 GMT
Last edited by the author on 8 Dec 2008 00:30:07 GMT
B. Yates says:
Hi, thanks for writing your points about this book.

1) The tension that exists between science and religion tends to relate to the purported facts in each rather than nebulous worldviews (i mean this only in terms of the individual not being driven by the gravitas of factual thinking at the time when they make the statement). Gravity Theory, Germ Theory, Electromagnetic theory can all be consigned to worldviews, but then the language needs to be more specific about what we mean by these and how they differ from the experimental evidence of the day. If gravity (as in Relativity Theory) is one day superseded, as it will be by quantum gravity or Germ Theory is discovered to be false then the hope is that scientists of the day will quickly move on, although you can expect that some will not, but this is probably indicative of those who had begun to follow the scientific ideas as a faith. I can feel in myself when my limbic system becomes involved in scientific ideas, promoting an emotional response. I think this acts like an anchor to intellectual progression (i.e. learning new stuff). It is very important that if evolution is disproven (not like how creationists 'think' they have disproven it, but actually disproven), then it is ditched the very next day. In essence the competing world views are about the philosophies behind. Tension results from the appearance of religion that it cannot progress, is not open to new ideas, resists any ideas (even if they have all the supporting evidence) that risk its claims competence, is the very anti-thesis of any evidence driven scheme and is philosophically opposed to those that are, and still seems to claim certainty amid much uncertainty. In this sense it is not competing facts, but competing philosophies, which are the cause of the 'worldview conflicts'. These may be much harder to reconcile. It may also be worth noting that if all the anthropological, archeological, geological, cosmological and biological (i dont know much about other fields) evidence since the 1800's had backed up the theist position (as i (perhaps stupidly) would have expected if it was accurate) then this factual worldview problem would go away.

2) You are completely right about evolution making claims about gaps that it fills before the evidence is in, although theorising in the absence of evidence is nothing new. It is important however that any previous speculation is corrected at the point when new evidence arises. The difference here perhaps is that this is evolution theoretically expanding into unknown areas (and then being corrected later in light of new evidence) whereas the essence of the God of the gaps argument is God ever receding into the gaps left by evidence. It should also be noted that Evolution Theory is not the tree of life or apes to man. These are consequences of the theory based on cladistic, genetic analysis etc. Hence these interpretations of the tree of life are simply that, although they are based on all the available evidence or they would not been in the science journals (school book texts are always dumbed down as anyone knows when they get to college and are told to forget most of what they previously learnt as it was dumbed down simplifications for kids). It is quite possible that a new fossil can alter the placements of lineages, or that molecular evidence could do the same. In response to your last point, there are areas where science cannot go. These exist due to lack of experiments to test theories, lack of planetary intellect/work time or genuine theoretical and philosophical boundaries, but the point is that we cannot know where they are. There is always the possibility that more work might reveal an unexpected breakthrough. Using this argument not to simply point out philosophical weaknesses, but as a way to strengthen ones own argument through the weakness of another through philosophy is not an example of wisdom, it is verging on smoke and mirrors.

3) The idea that information cannot be generated without a higher source of information is an old chestnut in the barrel. I like it almost as it feels intuitively like it might be correct. As the previous commentator wrote, the inescapable regress is a major problem. The theist statement that god was just there and is all ace and super big and stuff just doesnt cut it with many thinkers. I wish i could get away with it in job interviews (i am the best... employ me). If the theory is that intelligence requires intelligence then where next down the line. If expert information theorists are willing to put there name to the notion that this aspect of information theory definitely underlies biological systems then so be it, but... The generation of new information is not really this. The generation of new abilities and new 'information' has been recorded serveral times in the lab. The best is the famous nylon eating bug (Flavobacterium i think). A genetic sequence for metabolising carbohydrates underwent a frame shift in which it was accidentally copied and doubled. The resulting organism was able to still metabolise carbohydrates. A mutation in this second genetic sequence then resulted in the ability to metabolise nylon. This was only at 2% of the ability to metabolise carbohydrates, but it still allowed the bacterium to colonise a new niche. This is a perfect example of the generation of new information. I know that the counter argument would be that the information already existed, but this is a self defeating arguement as the essense is that new sequences of code 'new information' can arise through evolution. This at the very least provides a mechanism for the genome to have arisen though mechanisms such as this when combined with mutation and obviously the various selections. The idea that a conservation of information can be applied because there is a law of conservation of energy is a very silly one. Energy is conserved through e=mc2 for a start and relates probable quantum effects with the geometry of space and time, how would conservation of information occur and how would it rule out the simple copying and doubling of genetic information outlined above. If there was some sort of thermodynamic affect whereby generation of information resulted in increased entropy as conservation of energy might suggest then this would not rule in theism, it would just mean heat generation by the chemical reactions. Information generation would still be entirely possible, but would require evolution to be anything other than small scale mutation and molecular replication.

I would like to add a little about some real problems faced by science.
Evolution is an amazingly powerful, but simple idea. We are all familiar with artificial selection. There is no controversy here. Natural selection is simply nature doing the choosing instead of us artificially. All simple. Most problems encountered are due to people not understanding that evolution is guided. It is NOT random. The mutation, which is the engine of evolution, is guided by Natural Selection. Hence we get a nice world where most things look designed to fit in. They are. Bits where they appear to not fit in cancer/sickle cell disease often have evolutionary reasons. Cancer is what we pay for our ability to evolve rapidly enough to have made it through the last ice ages. Sickle cell as malaria has problems infecting the red blood cells so it provides some immunity. Without evolution we are faced with a real lack of knowledge regarding these are a great many other illnesses and features of our species, not to mention all the negative aspects of some of the prefered theological alternatives. We are fallen beings, we have sin cast upon us, etc etc.
I wish more people understood the nature of time a little better. Could see its interrelationship with the space dimensions. See how time bends/dilates. How the universe can be billions of years old and hundreds of thousands at the same time. Or how time might even be irrelevant to the overall construct of the universe. These arguments about what happened before the universe really are no more intellectually cogent than asking what is south of the south pole. They can be worth asking of course as we need to know an answer, but just don't be surprised if the answer is don't ask silly questions. Time is an integral dimension of this universe, just like space. It is an occurance of events within space and is related to the geometry of the space. For the brief seconds where you can hold why the speed of light is important in your mind i think you can grasp why its a silly question. For a second anyway. My brain for one doesnt hold that sort of realisation for more than a second or two.
The biggest problem for science vs religion and possibly the only real place left for a pantheistic God is in the fine tuning of the universes fundamental constants. Who knows what the answer is to this one. It is just about a strong enough argument for me to become pantheistic except for a few possibilities. Multiverses (again, who knows). Multiverses are reached as a conclusion of several important physical theories including sting theory. Suggestions that they are simply an anthropomorphic argument are incorrect, they are real in the sense that they are real within the maths. Other possibilities include us sitting in a bubble of inflated spacetime surrounded by many others, each with different rules. Or perhaps a bang/crash/reset/bang model etc. So who knows.
I think the best thing in all this is to just chill out and have a beer. Wisdom comes from admitting you dont know everything. What should be the very thesis of a truthful scientist (note that Dawkins doesnt say that God definitely doesnt exist, just that it is highly improbable). The only thing that bugs me is when the religious claim complete certainty with less warrant than science. Science will never know all to 100%, but whereas religion will claim to know the 100% truth (while at the same time claiming humility), it will continue to fall further behind until it modernises. Have a beer while waiting for more data. Lennox certainly hasnt come up with anything new or that hasnt already been remarked upon.

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2008 22:42:31 GMT
ChrisP says:
Hi - thanks for giving such thought to responding to my comments. You were reflective and interesting - I particularly agree that there will be a point (whatever the outcome of one's philosophical journey) where one needs to chill and accept the reality of a mystery beyond human comprehension - whether divine or otherwise.

There are some points where I disagree a bit with you though. I think that you make the error in places (as does Dawkins and lets be honest, most of us) of identifying the philosophical hypothesis of theism with the broad sweep of its religious off-springs. Yes, it is true that much pseudo-scientific religious thinking had to shift with the discoveries and theories that leap-up post 1800, and there has clearly been a major `God-of-the-Gaps' issue that will have been needing to gradually erode since the birth of primitive cultures. So yes, much religious thinking is in conflict with science and some is actually opposed to it in principle. But you can strip Theism of practically all of that religious thinking and it still remains as an intact philosophical hypothesis. Indeed, philosophers such as Keith Ward and scientists such as Francis Collins see the full enterprise of science as being entirely compatible with and indeed, actively supportive of theism. They see it as being materialism that starts to fail when you really look at the totality of the evidence. So whilst much religion does indeed wrestle with science, it is materialism and naturalism which theism is contrary to.

As you say, religious thinking does seem to purport to special ways of `knowing' that must surely conflict with scientific ways of knowing. Largely I would say this comes down to the irreducible philosophical conundrum of consciousness. No degree of third-person explanations can explain a first person subjective viewpoint, and so no degree of rationalising in terms of mechanical evidence will ever quite sufficiently explain away a sense of `me'. It reminds me of trying to express `one third' using the decimal system - you can never quite do it, but thirds still exist - decimals are just the wrong way to express them. There is a sense for many people then that consciousness `experience' can perhaps link people to truths about the universe and it's underlying nature, in a way that conscious `rationalising' and mechanical experimentation can't. If this is true, then the supposed `humility' that you mention should indeed be there, because apprehension of this truth is not achieved by our own efforts - it is just there for us.

Lennox's `Evolution of the Gaps' claim refers to an assumption that evolution theory will explain all the things that it doesn't so far, and therefore there is no need for other theories to be put forward to explain the same things. In that sense, I don't see any real difference with the God of the Gaps that you refer to. The fact that evolution theory does not appear to be receding into these gaps, does not mean that it isn't using an unwarranted occupation of these gaps to protect itself.

I agree that we cannot know the exact boundaries of scientific knowledge, and so we should continue to plough ahead with attempts to extend its reach. However, this does not mean that we cannot therefore see easily enough areas where we are certain that `scientific investigation' as we know and love it, just won't do. Issues of existence beyond time and causation will clearly be out of reach. This is why we use maths, philosophy and forms of `religious' experience to try to fathom these realms. Maths does help to point the way where experiments can't go, and yet we find ourselves with a variety of different multiverse theories (what would it take to prove these - or indeed string theory - so as to make them `facts'?)

Your comments about conservation of information frustrate me: "If the theory is that intelligence requires intelligence then where next down the line". For a start why don't we imagine the same objection with energy? "If the theory is that energy requires energy then where next down the line" You seem content that all the energy displayed in the Universe must have been there at the start, but think that a similar contention about information leads to an infinite regression. I don't think your comment about the energy law having e=mc¬¬2 to explain it helps much either. If the same amount of theorising goes into information theory as has gone into areas of physics over the past 200 years, then maybe we will be able to compare the two areas in such a way.

I'm also not sure what your example about the `nylon eating bacterium' proves. Lennox and most other theists are quite happy with the processes of (what they like to call) micro-evolution. The assumption however that such statistical mechanisms could also have nicely constructed the DNA structure of the bacterium in the first place is something that Lennox (who of course is an eminent mathematician) criticises at length. Furthermore, the example you gave still seems to fit with the idea that at some fundamental level, the physical laws and mathematical algorithms of the universe must be conducive to such things happening, and hence still fits the conservation of information idea. Lennox points out that Dawkins had to create an algorithm for his own computer simulations to get them to perform the way he was seeking; they didn't just happen.

The bottom line is that all thinkers seek an ultimate ground for existence which explains the entirety of space and time, and which then escapes the requirement for a causal explanation itself. Theists believe that some divine consciousness is the most elegant way of doing this. At the present time materialists seem to prefer multiverse theory. How we decide really comes down to our `subjective' experiences of what it means to exist - and at that point I think a beer really does help!

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Feb 2009 20:36:45 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 9 Feb 2009 20:37:42 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Feb 2009 01:10:57 GMT
Last edited by the author on 17 Feb 2009 23:18:14 GMT
B. Yates says:
When you are in a position of defending an idea, no matter what it is, you will scavenge for any idea that seems reasonable. Anything that is has validity in any field. The problem here is when philosophy rubs against science. There relative validities.
To define the tension as between philosophical theism and a type of naturalism is a valid defence of something, but what?
If naturalism is the characterisation that religious leaders like to label it, ardent, uncompromising, utterly material, in denial of further possibility then philosophical theism (what I am calling your theism stripped of its religious offspring's) can be a countenance. However, if you had to make an argument against naturalism then is this not what you would make, irrelevant of its truth; a reflection of a philosophical response to a convenient characterisation? Is naturalism really their stereotype of it? Or have they chosen the exact characters that would be useful for this type of response?

What is the material world? What does this mean? The natural world now features hundreds of immaterial concepts that it did not 200 years ago. The problem I see with this attack on naturalism is that there is no definition of what is only allowed in a natural framework. Ghosts are the perfect example of what would currently fall under `supernatural', but if we prove they exist then they become part of the natural world, just like electromagnetic fields, quantum tunnelling, event horizons, quantum entanglement etc all of with are immaterial and would have been considered supernatural at one point. This defense only works so long as you can find a single example of anything that would stay classified as supernatural even if it was conclusively proven. Naturalism is not an ardent refusal of possibilities, just one that only incorporates the currently scientifically validated evidence. If the soul was proven then it would be called natural. For some reason every magical thing in the world we have discovered and explained has been moved from the supernatural to the natural, why has this happened? Why do we like to call that which is still in the unproven category, but that which we would like to be true, supernatural?, but that which is magical, strange, profound, but currently proven, natural. We seem to like to use distinguishing language based on these types of proven facts and imagined entities. If what we really have is just a philosophy of accepting that which is scientifically evidence based (naturalism) then any attack on it based on it being stupidly ardent of the refusal of preferred possibility is an attack on an incorrect characterisation, and so it is easy to see why it is wrong.

Now the conflict appears to be between the current facts and the imagined entities. There is nothing wrong with imagined entities, after all at some point all currently proven facts started as imagined entities, but the difference here is that when they come into conflict what it reveals is the difference between people who will treat them equally, weigh them, and deicide there relevant validities and those who reveal their inner predisposition to a certain imagined entity, this is the act of faith, the committal to something unproven.
Attempts to argue that defense of the imagined entity (by the way I don't use imagined here as an attack, I mean it in a literal sense; any idea must be imagined to be constructed and argued) is valid based on the mere possibility of other worlds has never stood against reality based defenses. Take for example the argument that milk comes from a cow because we have tested it, that the milk contains cow DNA, that cows contain milk producing organs etc, all against the philosophical defense that this denies the possibility that we are wrong. Of course we might be, but one argument rests on stone and one on sand, until someone provides evidence we are wrong. In this way we are able to better see the personal motivations of the individual in how they form their ideas about milk production; factually or by philosophical rebuttal.

When a person says they believe in God a scientist will wade in with facts, completely missing the point and they will talk in different languages. We must listen more. A person saying `I believe in God' reveals a personal choice to accept a worldview, this is quite different to listing known facts and comparing them. If they say `I believe in God because...' then they have entered a more scientific linguistic debate. The sentence will specify why and the facts can be compared. It is worth bearing in mind that this happens whenever `facts' are proposed and compared in any discipline. When religion steps into science in biology, chemistry, physics, geology or any field it is no different to anyone making statements out of their field of education. This is the realm that we normally fall into when we start ripping at religious facts, but religious people must see that whenever they use the `because' term they move away from philosophy and closer to sciences realm. Comparing facts is nothing new. Neither is deciding whether they stand against evidence and again often the person's individual choice is simply revealed when their conclusions are outside of the evidence. Usually you can see more about the individual than the factual knowledge, although I think that a modern emphasis on rationality still leads them to defend their decisions as rational, even when it is easy to see that they are choosing to accept some things and not others based on choice, not evidence. Obviously I am doing the same here, but the difference (I hope) is that in accepting current factuality (and understanding what these facts are built upon) whilst not accepting that which is only a possibility as factual I am being more honest to myself about my decisions and hopefully have the best chance I can of understanding what is known today. There is no problem with playing with philosophical possibility, but obviously it is different to factuality and the two should stand at least slightly apart in our minds. The current body of facts is also the only way we have to determine which of the infinite philosophical possibilities might be correct. Science has removed many of these possibilities but many still remain, included some Deity types.

Pure Philosophy is different then to science in how it approaches truth as a mind occupation, something that can be reached through pure thought, which is why it failed to produce the fruits that evidence based methods have revealed about the real world.
Always bear in mind that once something is proven it becomes part of the natural framework. There is no rule that something is not allowed. If we discover that we are a simulation on an alien hard disk then so be it. We would each have to deal with this, but the facts would stand alone from the philosophies people would like to be true. Some people would be able to deal with it, some would not. It might even make some people more religious as they fought the realisation.

This is my answer to the theism/naturalism argument. Since naturalism will incorporate any proven information into itself we are left simply with people who build their world on the evidence and those who don't, this simply reveals personal choice. Neither is a wrong philosophy to live a life, but clearly if you try and argue your own personal choices as facts against people who only choose proven facts then something will happen. It should be realised that any overstepping of facts into imagined extensions of reality simply reveals things about the individual, not about reality itself. It reveals the reality the person might like to exist rather than the one that does. It's a bit more complex than this as the person might not like some aspects of what they believe in, but this might be understood in terms of them being told of worlds by churches etc and liking the sound of some aspects (eternal life etc) and having to reluctantly accept others. They have not imagined these whole worlds themselves.

The attack on naturalism as the stereotype you suggest is clever by theologians, but it is also about the only way to attack it from a non-factual position. It is necessary to characterise it philosophically like this so it can be said that it denies whatever possibility the individual prefers. Philosophy can only attack philosophy, it falls against factuality. However naturalism exists as a list of facts. It is not about denial of any facts, however strenuously it is used to deny unproven possibilities. You can see this in the way a scientist will always try to use knowledge to dismiss a philosophy, which typically does not work, although facts are still a powerful thing.
This all shows personal choice. Does a personal want Odinism to be true, or Christianity, Islam, Earth worship, Buddha, Jainism, Zeus, Osiris, or Ra? Rain Gods, Thunder Gods, Sky Giants, eternal life, Gods within spacetime, Gods outside of spacetime. This choice will show in how they argue their decisions, how they choose to defend their position against those who say that atmospheric pressure and heat from the sun cause weather, that germs cause illness and sacrificing goats will not help, that prayer has no statistical affect or those that see physical processes under the microscope governing our lives.

Theism may be the thing that is in opposition to naturalism, but behind this is the choice that a person makes. Arguing that naturalism denies philosophical possibility is true, it only respects facts, but naturalism does not deny any possibility that can be proven. In this is shown that it is not about denial of God, but about denial of imagined realities. We want to know about what is real, not about what people want to be real.

The debate about which facts are accepted is a different matter, and one quite able to occur within a natural framework. Supernaturalism has been vigorously tested by believing scientists and has revealed nothing but placebo affects, amazing physiological affects and desires for mystery. Magicians are quite able to show how all the affects mediums and spiritualists perform are done and it is easy to show you predicted something in retrospect. Biblical studies from literary virtues through history and archaeology show how suspect much of what is taken for granted really is. It is even possible to find theologians claiming that the entire academic discipline has shown the bible to be incongruent with history and that the university theology departments should now move towards educating the public past taking the bible as a historical source. Learning the different grades of experiment from open through to the golden standard, the double blind, and placebo controlled trial can give more confidence in the way science performs and also explain its special significance in our understanding of the real world, and not just the worlds we would like to exist such as those evident in philosophy and theology.

I might also add a couple of points.

It appears that it is possible to define a term 'factual relativism'. Ignorance of education is the normal position for us all. There is no problem with this. In general we dont tend to talk out of our fields of expertise. I will not try to tell engineers how to build a car or aeroplane, or tell an artist about the history of Monet. This is a position born of wisdom. Earth Sciences face a particular problem gaining a similar respect. Naturally people are interested in the subject, which is great, but generally disinterested in learning it properly. This creates the same affect as if people were as interested in talking about car engineering without proper education in it. People sit around tables and repeat errors and inaccuracies, indulge themselves, and think they have won if they defeat another incorrect argument. I see this in every discussion i have with family and friends. For some reason people believe that they are able to discuss this properly with little to no education in it.
Here your argument about a natural inclination to the truth from our senses comes in. Without the possibility of this defense people would have to accept that Earth Sciences is the same as any other specialised field of knowledge i.e. you dont know it unless you have studied it.
How does this contrast with normal educational ignorance? In general when we make the mistake of talking on a subject we dont know we have not been greatly educated in it. If you compare the amount of bridge building information in the public sphere then i think we can say we are not too exposed to it. We should still not talk about the subject as we dont know about it. This would be responsible. However we are not generally responsible, we all talk alot about things we dont really know too well. With something like evolution though educators are trying very very hard to fight the modern attempt to undermine the theory, there is a good deal of knowledge available, but most importantly to the distinction i am trying to make is that when i talk nonsense about art or construction the chances are that no-one will correct me of my ignorance. If they do and i choose to remain ignorant then i am revealing bias, not wisdom.
When someone continues to use arguments that have been put to bed it is fine if they meet no-one that tells them otherwise. Once they meet people who will tell them why they are wrong and what to read to show them then there is evidence of 'factual relativism'; being the tendancy to select the preferred evidence and ignore the rest. This is strongest i think when people are refusing to self educate, rather than when someone properly self educates, but still does believe, which i think would come under other explanations, but obviously still shows personal bias. If they do not believe because the evidence is not good (moon made of cheese?) then they reveal that their personal bias is towards good science. If they do not believe because they cannot personally accept it for reasons other than logic or rationality then the personal bias is probably not towards good evidence, but probably lies more towards what they would like to be true.

However, having re-read your comments and the many similar points i have left the idea that knowledge itself can confront all these ideas. To me evolution cannot disprove God, nor any isolated evidence, but a fair comparison of a list of Gods attributes against modern sciences web does lend itself towards an evaluation of the claims and history of each.
Any utter certainty is contrary to philosophical uncertainty. The problem for me is in deciding the benchmark for what can be considered 'proven'. I think the world is roughly spherical, that the heart pumps blood etc. Where though is the benchmark? What can we take as true and does this also define the grounds for reasonable and unreasonable belief. Am i reasonable to believe that you are a fish? Philosophically it might be true, perhaps even i am, but is it past the benchmark and if so would this define it as an unreasonable belief? My argument rests on it being unreasonable.
When a philosopher tries to tackle matters of what is reasonable they will inevitably need to draw on knowledge. In this way philosophy cannot stand on its own in judging interpretations of the world as it needs to assess the knowledge to decide whether it is reasonable. If they are not doing this then they are not concerning themselves with reasonableness and are on the attack for attacks sake. It is acceptable to draw attention to people behaving as if they are certain, but also worth noting that even though the media may present people in certain ways not even Dawkins says he is, he only puts himself at 9/10 on a scale of atheism. I also have yet to read a philosophical critisism of atheism that draws attention to religious certainty.

Thanks again for your comment. Sorry it took a while to respond. Back to the beer hay.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Apr 2009 20:49:55 BDT
Last edited by the author on 26 Apr 2009 21:01:03 BDT
Philonous wrote:

"No, wrong. The issue is whether intelligence can only be explained by intelligence and this puts the theist in a dilemma."

With respect, the answer to this is "No, Wrong. This is a straightforward category error."

This argument, much beloved by many atheists, is based on an absolutely basic misconception - that a brain that came into existence within this universe, and is constrained by all the limitations of this universe, can through simple logic come to a full understanding of that which is not only outside this universe - and therefore NOT constrained by the limitations of this universe - but which also created this universe and can, at will, act into this universe.

Whether one accepts the idea, or not, of some kind of being that fits the "outside the universe ... etc." description, it is patently obvious that the basic claim to arrive at that information by simple earth-bound reasoning is a complete non-starter.

All that this argument actually demonstrates is an inability to get one's head around the notion of God as anything other than a mythical, human-like being somewhere up in the sky.
(Thesists, BTW, do not, if they've any sense, lay claim to anything like a complete understanding of God - only some initial inklings. Or as it says in one translation of The Bible "Now we see as through a glass, darkly.")

In short, the argument proposed by Philonous, and others, it is based on a simple lack of ability to "think outside the box", followed by a rather pointless side swipe at people who can.

Posted on 5 Jul 2010 22:29:26 BDT
Last edited by the author on 5 Jul 2010 22:38:23 BDT
Right...regarding conservation of information:

Consider thermodynamics, and specifically the second law. The entropy of an isolated system such as the universe must always increase. This is entirely consistent with local reductions in entropy, otherwise it would not be possible to make a crystal out of a liquid. What is required for a local increase in order (patterns, simplicity if you like) is an even greater corresponding decrease in order in the surroundings. Typically this is accomplished by the relase of a large amount of heat dissipated around any entropy-reducing collection of events - such as the building of a skeletomuscular system from disordered materials in the environment - so that net entropy still increases. I do not see why the 'information' contained in DNA cannot be seen as a form of structure and to have arisen in a similar manner at the expense of increasing environmental disorder. Lennox's argument seems also to be contradicted in a simple manner, since in the process of writing this paragraph i have increased the information (in terms perhaps of symbolic, communicable, or semiotic content) in a small rectangle on the screen before me, have i not - at the expense of heat dissipating from my head, arms, fingers, and from the computer itself?

What is missing with DNA is a step-by-step mechanistic explanation starting only with simple ingredients of a primordial soup and finally arriving at a double-helix within a membrane bound cellular environment, togather with replicative machinery and capacity for errors allowing natural selection on the 'individuals = membrane-bound replicators' to begin. But by singling this out i really feel Lennox is creating a rather easy target for aetheists who have said all along that God is so often used merely as a convenient supernatural explanation to fill the specific mechanistic gaps in our naturalistic picture of the world. I feel Lennox should steer away from specific classes of natural phenomena, however mysterious they presently seem, and for which there is not yet a fully comprehensible mechanistic explanation entirely, since many times in the past these same kinds of phenomena have been shown to be explicable. I find him confused on other issues, such as asserting that Newton's explanation of an apple falling in terms of a theory of gravitation is using something complex to explain something simple (in one of his debates with Dawkins) - to make the point that Dawkins should not be saying this is so unreasonable in the case of the universe - creator relationship. What Lennox ommitted to mention is that the theory of gravity explains so much more than an apple falling. It explains every instance of attraction between two particles of matter throughout the universe, and only most incidentally, why the apple falls. So, really, the theory of gravity in Newton IS much more simple than what it is explaining, which on the face of it is a million kinds of 'heterogenous, mysterious and inexplicable' falling events and planetry orbits. Consequently, and in general this IS true, science unifies phenomena within a framework of fewer explanatory components. In fact, it is essential that it operate this way since a scientific theory should never, ever have more parameters than what is being modelled, since there can then never be enough evidence to support parameter values.

Anyway back to information arising from thermodynamical principles and natural selection. It does not seem so outlandishly impossible as to warrant a supernatural explanation. I believe at least conceptually there is a good case to be made for visualising the emergence of DNA at least as well as we might visualise other incredibly slow and gradual phenomena, such as evolution of vertebrates from single-celled eukaryotes (something we accept as not requiring a supernatural explanation). Here is an off the cuff sketch of such a mechanism.

Nucleotides, amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars, we know can arise in heated liquid mixtures exposed to radiation and electricity viz. electrical storms. Short combinations of nucleotides occurring randomly, across all the primordial oceans of the planet, and having the best part of a billion years to arise through chance conjunctions of single nucleotides are entirely plausible. These are ALREADY able to compete in the sense of having differential stabilities within their chosen environments, thus conditioning the future population of oligonucleotides to be biased in certain senses determined by the environment. At a certain point, say 10 nucleotides in length, some catalytic function is acquired through the preferred loop structure of the nucleotide fragment...this may simply be to partly stabilise a different oligonucleotide in the mix. Eventually there are collections of nucleotide molecules, forming a mutually stabilising group.

Replication becomes possible as a result of the purely physical property of base-pairing...nucleotides have chemical affinity for one another. This is exploited greatly in the modern amplification process of PCR to generate large quantities of DNA of a particular sequence very rapidly. Imagine further, since there are fatty acids in the mixture, we have little membrane-bound vesicles (no different to soap bubbles) and some combinations of oligonucleotides become trapped in these...this would happen given sufficient time. These little collections are the proto-proto-proto-cells...they can compete with one another in the sense that some are more stable than others. Any property enhancing their reproducibility and / or stability will contribute to longevity and population size for some collections over others - for example, having the ability to absorb external molecular building blocks through the membrane, due to slightly different constitution of fatty acids affecting permeability of this membrane.

The system continues to develop in complexity by incremental acquisition of new combinations, new interactions, and gradual accretion in size of the individual consituents...we have difficulties imagining this because 1000,000,000 years are involved, but are limited lifespan should not be used as a basis for scepticism in the face of extremely slow processes, any more than we should doubt the basic tenets of Darwinian Natural Selection - since it is entirely rational - as it applies to more recent geological times. Specifically the primordial, membrane-bound collections of simple oligonucleotides acquire biases towards certain RNAs that are most stable and suitable for information holding, certain that are catalytically equipped to stable watson-base pairing with others, to facilitate and progenitor replicative mechanism, and certain that contain the elements of adaptation from RNA to protein signal, via an RNA-amino acid chemical bond. Put that not too hard to grasp picture into place together with heaps of time and vast (1000000000000000...s) molecular population sizes, and the competetive principles of natural selection, and well, it's not so hard to imagine - qualitatively - how cells might arise.

The universe is mysterious and wonderful but as far as i can see the majority of the evidence for religion is emotional. It has to do with how we feel in our hearts, in our communities, or when faced with harmonious and awe-inspiring features of the cosmos. It has to do with other quite reasonable emotions too, like fear - fear of the void, fear of the inexplicable, fear of a moral vacuum which aetheism may bring in toe.

I most certainly do not find it a fully satisfying and rationally coherent system of propositions. There are far too many inconsistencies and odd statements in the supposedly revealed text which for any normal theory would cause it to be rejected, but we live with all these errors in the basic written document out of disproportionate respect to the believers. I'll go along with this only so far, but when it comes to using the same inconsistent text for unethical, ignorant, or prejudicial, purposes then i really have a problem with it. The same of course would go for science which has been much abused over the ages as has religion.

In essense i would like people to stop proving that either science or religion portrays ultimate truth but to demonstrate a little more humility in the limitations of human conceptual power which maybe, just maybe, cannot extend to regions outside of spacetime from our little vantage points on Earth. Agnosticism combined with healthy scepticism about the limitations of science and about the non-literalness of any specific relgious text would be a giant leap for mankind i believe. Allow people their faiths but please stop the slavish appeal to the specific sequence of words which so unsatisfactorarily purports to codify the universe-god-mankind relationships in full..and falls so, so very far short on so many basic points (like the value of Pi, which is , erm, exactly 3, according to the old testament.).
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