Lewis Wolpert and Russell Cowburn debate “Can science tell us anything about God?”

manicstreetpreacher analyses a debate between two scientists at opposite ends of the spectrum of religious belief.

I have listened to the 19 December 2009 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate programme Unbelievable? featuring atheistic embryologist Lewis Wolpert of University College London, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief and theistic physicist Russell Cowburn of Imperial College London on their recent debate “Can science tell us anything about God” held at Gunnersbury Baptist Church on 8 November 2009, as well as the audio of the full debate from the Gunnersbury website.

UPDATE 08/01/2009

I have found a video of the full debate:

Wolpert’s main line of attack is there is absolutely no evidence for God and he doesn’t seem to have done very much since raising Jesus from the dead over two millennia ago.  I have to agree with him here: people get all choked up every time a baby falls out of a window and is saved by the soft roof of a passing car – they remain oddly silent at all the ditches that are full of dead babies when no one did a thing.  I thought that Cowburn’s objections that Wolpert and the rest of the world’s non-believers ought to believe what was written down 2,000 years ago and it is irrational and unreasonable to expect God to appear in to each and every one of us were very weak.

As Thomas Paine argued in The Age of Reason (First Part, Section 1 – 2), we are perfectly entitled to reject Moses’ account of meeting God atop of Mount Sinai (if such a place even exists; no geographer has ever been able to identify the biblical Sinai from the true geographical location!) then I am perfectly entitled to reject his account, because to me it is hearsay and not direct revelation:

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases.  But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only.  When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons.  It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing.  Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication – after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hands of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so.  The commandments carry no internal evidence of divinity with them; they contain some good moral precepts, such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver, or a legislator, could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.

When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes too near the same kind of hearsay evidence and second-hand authority as the former.  I did not see the angel myself, and, therefore, I have a right not to believe it.

Cowburn should also read my disgracefully unscholarly piece about Richard Bauckham’s erm, “arguments” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for my full thoughts.  That quote at the end from Sam Harris about how the evidence for Christianity would still not be good enough even if we had multiple contemporary eyewitness accounts empties all “scholarly” discourses about the reliability of oral tradition from direct observers and who-first-started-to-believe-what-when.

Of course, the atheist will always complain about the hiddenness of God.  Why can’t God just reveal himself in the middle of the World Cup final when most of the humans on the planet will be watching and put the matter beyond doubt rather than appearing to stupefied illiterates in remote parts of Middle East in the pre-scientific past?  If you can’t believe what you read last week in The Sunday Times, then fail to understand Cowburn’s scepticism when confronted with a collection of disjointed and contradictory documents from the ancient past.

And I’m still waiting for a convincing response to Christopher Hitchens’ 94,000 – 98,000 Year Wait Gambit as to the Almighty being rather tardy and allowing of a great deal of suffering and death before finally deciding to step in with an offer of salvation:

Perhaps Cowburn can now supply it.

Finally, I would recommend that Cowburn investigates the work of Victor Stenger, American cosmologist, atheist and author of Has Science Found God? and God, The Failed Hypothesis who debunks the idea that “whatever begins to exist has a cause” as the kind of common sense logic that tells us that the Earth is flat.  Particles produced by nuclear decay come into existence without a cause.  The universe was like a subatomic particle at the time of the Big Bang, so this example could well apply to the beginning of the universe.

Stenger also debunks the fine-tuning argument that carbon-based life in the universe cannot have come about naturally because it was too “improbable”.  Firstly, virtually all every day events are “improbable” when you state them a priori and then crunch the numbers, such as a person’s very existence in this world.  And secondly, what is the probability that this universe is the result of a divine design?  It could be even lower than the naturalistic alternative.  What data do we have in order to make the calculation?  Not very much, it would appear.

I have recently posted my own analysis of Stenger’s debate against William Lane Craig at the University of Hawaii in 2003, as well as the transcript of Stenger’s three main speeches, which provides further comment and elaboration.

UPDATE: 26/12/2009

I emailed this piece to Lewis Wolpert and Russell Cowburn for their comments.  “Lewy” replied saying that he liked the piece and hoped that I liked his theory about the origins of human religious behaviour.  I realise now that the piece neglects somewhat Lewis’ book on religion!  Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast is less a polemic against the untruths of and crimes of religious faith, but an explanation of why Homo sapiens practise religion if there is no God.  I replied to Lewis that such theories come ten-a-penny, but his is as good as some and better than most.

Essentially, Lewis thinks that religious behaviour is an extension of humans’ interpretation of “cause and effect”, such as shaking a tree to make its fruit fall off and using tools to make other objects.  The offshoot of this is that we see agency and patterns in practically everything, even whether no such invisible guiding hand (i.e. God!) exists.  Lewis says that animals show the seeds of this behaviour to a very limited extent.  They know that shaking a tree will get the fruit down, but aren’t intelligent enough to use tools.

However, a few days after posting my original piece I came across this article on the BBC News website which says that certain groups of chimpanzees in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea, Africa, are now using both stone and wooden cleavers, as well as stone anvils, to process Treculia fruits:

The apes are not simply cracking into the Treculia to get to otherwise unobtainable food, say researchers.

Instead, they are actively chopping up the food into more manageable portions.

I emailed the article to Lewis, saying that they’ll be worshipping the sun and sacrificing their cubs to ensure it rises every morning in no time!  Lewis replied that the chimps are beginning to learn how to use tools, but it is very limited.  Perhaps there won’t be any Blessed Virgin Marys and weeping statutes for a while after all.

For more on the evolution of religious faith, I would strongly recommend watching or listening to J Anderson “Andy” Thomson’s superb lecture at the American Atheists 2009 conference and Thomson and R Elizabeth Cornwell’s paper, “The Evolution of Religion”.

Finally, I have often been asked what evidence that I as an atheist would accept for the existence of God.  Up until now, I have jumped in with both feet and then made a bit of a fool of myself.  This is partly due to theists always being able to re-invent their God to conform to the empirical data and then accusing me of merely citing reasons not to believe in God.

However, I thought that Lewis’ example of having his departed wife returned to him was a wonderfully moving example of possible evidence for the supernatural that would make a sceptic reassess his or her non-belief.  While I have not lost anyone close to me up to now in my life, I might just use that one in future when I am asked the question again.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Lewis Wolpert and Russell Cowburn debate “Can science tell us anything about God?””

  1. PaulJ Says:

    I have often been asked what evidence that I as an atheist would accept for the existence of God.

    I can’t say that I’ve often been asked this question, but I have heard it put to atheists enough times to make me consider what my own response would be.

    And I don’t know. I think an ostensibly supernatural experience would most likely make me wonder about my sanity before I would accept that the cause of the event was divine intervention (although Lewis Wolpert’s example would, I admit, be pretty convincing).

    My answer to the direct question would probably be a request for clarification of the term “God”. I might be convinced of the deistic wind-up-the-clockwork-of-the-universe-and-throw-away-the-key type of god, but the God of Abraham seems so utterly ridiculous and untenable in so many ways, I simply have no idea what could possibly convince me of his existence, other than the most obvious, miraculous, personal revelation, in the presence of others whose sanity and corroboration I had no reason to doubt.

    But really, there’s no need for me to be concerned about this. If the omni-whatever God of Abraham really exists and really wants me to believe in him, he knows perfectly well what it would take to convince me, even if I myself have no idea — and yet, so far, he appears indifferent to my lack of faith. This leads me to only one conclusion.

  2. Paul Baird Says:

    IF ID is correct, then who is the designer designing for ? The evidence would appear to be heavily in favour of the dinosaur.

    Did they stop believing in their God and now it’s our turn, sort of ID 2.0 ?

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Why has God… sorry, the Designer, bothered to design anything at all?

      You can take an armchair approach in disproving the existence of God by showing that his traditional attributes are self-contradictory, rather like a square circle. Perhaps my all-time favourite contradiction is the notion that a perfect being created the universe.

      If God has any divine purpose whatsoever, whether creating the universe, creating human beings to know and love him, or to award his chosen people a strip of desert on the Mediterranean which happens to be the one spot in the Middle East with no oil, it is contradictory to his supposed status as a perfect being.

      Broken down as a syllogism:

      1. God is perfect. (premise)

      2. God deliberately created the universe. (premise)

      3. Being perfect, God does not now nor ever has nor ever will have any needs or wants. (from 1, 3)

      4. Deliberate creation entails an effort to satisfy some need or want. (premise)

      5. Being a creator, God at one time had some need or want. (from 2, 5)

      6. It is impossible to have some need or want and also to never have any need or want.

      7. Conclusion: God, if it exists, is either not perfect or has not created anything. (from 4, 6)

      ’Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

      – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: