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on 11 February 2013
Throughout this book, Robert Asher displays a great knowledge and understanding of palaeontology and Darwin's theory of evolution, and reveals a tremendous commitment to scientific principles of evidence and logical inference in that domain. In parts it reads more like a textbook, and a tedious one at that for a lay reader, but this is not my main objection. The book's worst fault is that it celebrates an intellectual double standard. Asher is eager "to point out that religion and science can be compatible" but he succeeds only in showing that some scientists happen to hold religious beliefs, not that religion and science are compatible at a deeper level. Indeed, he unwittingly achieves the opposite of his stated goal, by demonstrating the deeper incompatibility: on the final page, he admits to accepting "the existence of a deity behind life" on the basis on his own intuition, which he claims to be "entirely rational." Really? Entirely rational? Yes, he argues, because science is a subset of rationality. Unfortunately, logic is not on his side: the premises "science is a subset of rationality" and "intuitions are non-scientific" do not logically entail the conclusion that those intuitions must therefore be rational, let alone entirely rational. They could be irrational. Lest we forget, being rational (the root of this word is ratio) means being committed to holding beliefs in proportion to the evidence. Having faith means believing in the absence of evidence or in the face of evidence to the contrary. The compatibility Asher asserts is ultimately unconvincing because his arguments rely on one set of standards for religion and another for science, regardless of the kinds of questions each is supposed to address.

Can intuitions be "entirely rational"? In a word, no. We don't need to read Daniel Kahneman to suspect that the confidence people have in their intuitions is not a reliable guide to their validity (see Thinking, Fast and Slow). Intuitions are often correct, of course, but how do we know which ones are right? Obviously, because of the evidence, as Radcliffe Richards writes in The Sceptical Feminist. To the extent that intuition can be defended, that defence stems from reason, not from faith.

So, what is the evidence adduced by Asher in defence of his Christian beliefs? He regards the New Testament as "impressive documentation" and the historical content relating to Jesus as "honestly impressive" because these accounts "appear to have been written close to Christ's lifetime, well within range of an oral tradition based on eyewitness accounts." Untrustworthy, not impressive, is the word I would choose. As Richard Carrier writes in Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, "The existence of improbabilities, contradictions, propaganda, evident fictions, forgeries and interpolations, and legendary embellishments in them has been exhaustively discussed in the modern literature, and most scholars agree the Gospels contain a goodly amount of these things." We don't even know who wrote, say, the gospel according to Mark, let alone anything about this author's methods or sources or the warrants for his beliefs. Carrier points out that "rarely can we ascertain even who an author's source is, much less to which eyewitness it can ultimately be traced, and we can rarely assert someone is reliable when we don't even know who they are." These facts alone should give a sensible person (let alone a scientist trained to be sceptical of unfounded claims) pause for thought.

On the evidence of this book, Asher is an accomplished palaeontologist, and someone with a successful scientific career. He clearly uses the best scientific methods in order to construct and explain, say, the "evolutionary tree of living and fossil proboscideans calibrated to the geological timescale". As a good scientist, he also avoids appealing to a god of the gaps. What comes to his rescue as a believer is NOMA, the assertion that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria "and are basically compatible with one another in the sense that they deal with fundamentally different questions." And different questions require different methods, right? We have the scientific method for scientific questions and the religious method (whatever that is) for religious questions. (To get a feel for the religious disputes over fundamental epistemic criteria, see my review of Popkin's The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza.)

The problem for Asher is that the magisteria do not seem to be quite as non-overlapping as we are led to believe. The boundary is permeable to reason (remember, his intuition is not mystical but "entirely rational"), which is permitted entry into the religious sphere on condition that it bows the knee before faith. This is the true demarcation of science and religion, at the core of their incompatibility and of the double standard. Theology is full of reasoned arguments that ultimately depend upon unreasonable premises - such as the existence of God - that can only be held on faith. (And even if we accept the assertion that God is beyond the reach of science, whether or not, say, the resurrection took place at a certain time and at a certain place in history is an entirely scientific question, in the sense that it is decidable by appeal only to evidence and reason.)

To support his NOMA position, Asher appeals to the limitations of "methodological naturalism", which he asserts "is a rule of science that says one should not use supernatural phenomena to explain causation in the natural world." Who says this "is a rule of science"? As Dacey argues in The Secular Conscience, while "it makes sense for scientists to prefer naturalistic explanations, there are no good grounds for ruling out supernatural explanations necessarily and in principle." As Stenger points out in God and the Folly of Faith, if "the supernatural exists and has effects on the material world, then those effects are subject to scientific study." And as the author of Acts writes, the "sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come". If that isn't the supernatural causing events that are visible in the natural world, I don't know what is.

Asher's mistake, I think, lies in his confusing two kinds of naturalism: methodological and ontological. It ought to be obvious that "there is no way to legislate in advance what may or may not be used in our scientific exploration of the world" (Dacey). The natural forces we know make a mobile phone work would have seemed supernatural sorcery to a medieval person, and so we would not have the science behind mobile phones if science were not allowed to investigate what was thought to be supernatural. (Historically, religious opposition of this kind did frequently inhibit scientific research. See, for example, White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.)

According to Asher, science is all about the "how" behind nature, not the "who" or "why", and, moreover, Christianity seems to him "a legitimate account of the agency behind life". First of all, asking simple why questions (why did the apple fall?) does not necessarily imply agency (it could be because it was windy, not that someone was shaking the branch). Secondly, as Asher himself admits, palaeontologists "consider the products of natural agents all the time" - so why couldn't science investigate the agency responsible for evolution, if there was one? The reason he doesn't ask this question is because he's already answered it: there is an agency behind evolution, and that agent is God, and not just any god but the particular god of Christianity. He then makes a fatuous analogy comparing the relationship between evolutionary biology and God to that between the lightbulb and Thomas Edison: understanding the former says nothing about the motivations of the latter. True, apart from the disanalogy: we know Thomas Edison existed and what his motivations were and that he was responsible for the lightbulb; we don't even know that God exists.

One glaring omission from the bibliography is the monumental work by Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, which makes a far more powerful case for cranes than Asher does for skyhooks. What this book does illustrate magnificently is how religious commitments are capable of clouding even the finest minds. Asher's equivocal attitude to reason is summed up by a couple of comments within a few lines of each other. He first makes the unexceptional claim that "scientific inquiry is limited by human rationality and our capacity to observe." Well, of course it is. Then, he refers to "the acid of rational scrutiny" and so undermines the very process by which he does his science. Not only that, he demonstrates once again the fundamental incompatibility between science and religion: while science values reason and evidence as good, faith doesn't.
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on 1 April 2012
This is an excellent book. Academic in feel, but accessible in style. Plenty of content on the current discussion of evolution and theism. Evolution, in Asher's view, is the most likely mechanism of life. He strongly argues, however, that this does not answer the question concerning the agency behind it.
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on 14 July 2015
A good read
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