Top critical review
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Worth reading, whatever your current stance
on 5 September 2008
This is not a bad book at all, and it is written (on the whole) in an accessable style. It stands out from other similar books by attempting to clarrify what the author considers to be the real issues. It also scores by just focussing on one aspect of the theism/atheism/agnosticism debate, and obviously this is the aspect about which the author is most informed. There was also some discussion of the philosophy of science, which is all too often omitted or taken for granted. However, one of things that occurred to me, whilst reading this book, is that rarely do we get any discussion of the more fundamental point of what constitutes evidence. This is not as obvious as it first sounds. For example, in medical research, there are clear criteria for what constitutes strong or weak evidence for a particular treatment. In some areas of science, experimental data is considered the gold standard, whereas in others, correlational data is favoured. Outside the scientific arena, there are again very different criteria for what would constitute legal evidence. By the end of the book, the author clearly believes he has presented evidence in favour of intelligent design. If you read the range of reviews here, it is clear that some people agree with him, whereas others consider that he does not present any evidence at all. Possibly a philosphical question, but one which is very relevant to this debate.
On p. 166, he states "Is the scientific method not applicable everywhere?", as a criticism of biological sciences not accepting an arguement which he believes would be considered watertight in the physical sciences. Well, the answer is no, the method, or paradigm to use Kuhn's terminology, is not always the same accross different sciences. There are very good reasons for that, because there are differences in the type of information being considered, and not all methods of investigation are going to be equally productive. The most fruitful ones come to be the dominant paradigms in a particular area, in a process that Dawkins might describe as natural selection of memes. Lennox does not seem to appreciate this, which I find strange for someone who is a Fellow of Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at Oxford. He clearly feels at home when talking about the physical sciences, but is much less so regarding biological sciences, where he resorts to using lots of quotations, rather than stating arguements in his own words. Some of the analogies he uses betray this, for example when discussing a work of art to illustrate the limits of the scientific approach: "how could science tell us whether a painting is a masterpiece or a confused smudge of colours" (p.39). This is obviously a subjective judgement, and certain branches of psychology, such as experimental aesthetics, would use scientific methodology to do precisely that. He goes on to conclude that science is poor at, or does not attempt to answer "why" questions, which may be the case with the physical sciences (his opinion, not mine), but I certainly do not think is true of the biological sciences.
The book starts by stating two key premises, which are necessary for the arguements put forward. The first one is a criticism of Dawkins stating that the basis of religion is faith, which is non-evidence-based. Lennox says that this is blind faith, and that Christian faith is in fact evidence-based (although this comes back to my earlier point about what constitutes evidence). Lennox obviously speaks for himself, and people that he knows, but not necessarily for Christians as a whole. I have had many discussions with people who have made it quite clear to me that the very essence of their faith is that they KNOW that God exists, and do NOT require evidence. So I do not think he can claim to speak for all Christians here, but I accept the point that it is equally unfair to classify all religious faith as blind faith. His second point is that he does not feel that science, defined in terms of a method of investigation and deduction, is incompatible with religion, and that there is ultimately scientific evidence in favour of the existence of God. The disagreement is between naturalism, where the forces of nature explain everything, and theism, where things have proceeded only via the intervention of a supernatural being. A good point, which makes it clear what he intends to discuss. He then goes on to put forward an arguement in favour of intelligent design.
Assuming this is a true representation of the arguement for intelligent design, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, this is the book's strength. It puts forward that arguement clearly. Whether you agree with it is another matter, but it puts it forward with sufficient clarity to allow you to make some form of judgement. Exactly where this sits with evolution, I think is less clear. Lennox acknowledges that some aspects of evolutionary theory are supported by evidence, whereas others are speculative. However, the complexity of the process, and the mathematical probabilites involved, lead him to conclude that the intervention of a supernatural being was necassary to start the process off. As he constantly refers to his position as theist, rather than deist, regular ongoing intervention must have been required throughout the process: it is simply too complex, and too mathematically improbable to have happened by chance. At least, that is what I think he is saying: some form of evolution may well have happened, but only with the help of divine intervention. To back up his arguement further, he cites examples of man-made items, which could not exist without a creator (i.e. humans), and says it is equally improbable that natural items came into being without a creator. Some man-made items, such as computers, have gone through an evolutionary process (in the most basic and uncontroversial sense of the word), but that process could not have occurred without the ongoing intervention of their creators.
Anticipating criticism, Lennox also talks about the God of Gaps. This is the tendency to look at gaps in scientific knowledge, and cite them as evidence for the existence of God or some other supernatural force. When you cannot explain something with science, God or a supernatural agency is used as a default explanation. Despite bringing it up frequently, and claiming to have put it to bed, I still think it remains a problem.
In conclusion, this book is worth reading, and enough information is provided to allow the reader to draw their own conclusion. But the final appraisal will depend heavily on the reader's own criteria for acceptable evidence. Do you accept intelligent design must be true because the alternative seems just too improbable? Do you go with evolution, for which we have some evidence, but some areas are still pretty shaky? Are we ever likely to get strong evidence either way? Can you still enjoy the debate without it - oh yes.