Faithful to Science

blog on science and religion

Category: reason (page 2 of 3)

Unfamiliar music

Imagine someone whose experience of music has been limited: they have only ever heard tunes and harmonies that are in a major key. Now suppose they come across some music in a minor key. They might, perhaps, find it difficult to like at first. They might even feel that it is not proper music, or that it is out of tune, or discordant. What attitude might such a person adopt? They will notice that other people like this other music, so they might decide that the problem is with their own hearing. Or they might decide that their own hearing is fine and the minor key is simply unmusical. It would be a pity if they concluded that, but it makes some sort of sense. But what would be oppressive, what would be objectionable, would be the claim that the quality of music in a minor key can only be properly assessed by first making a ‘correction’ of each minor chord or interval into a major counterpart.

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Faith and Reason

You can find much discussion of the concept of faith in the talks and books in the resources section of this blog. Here I will say some more about the roles of faith and reason.

Reason is about being receptive to persuasion, and honest enough to follow a sequence of steps where the connections can be shown and seen.

Faith is essentially a kind of willingness combined with a sense of value.

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Not what to think, but to think

image: detail: Mother and Child by the Sea, Jozef Israëls


I have been reading We make the road by walking  by Brian D. McLaren (Hodder and Stoughton, 2014). Here is a quotation from it. I will not comment further; he makes the point so well.

A little girl once asked her mother if the Bible story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was ‘real or pretend’. How would you have answered here question?

You might try to explain that sometimes a ‘pretend’ story can tell more truth and do more good than a ‘real’ one—as Jesus’ parables exemplify so powerfully. You might explain how real stories are often embellished with pretend elements. Or you might respond as that little girl’s wise mother did: ‘That’s a great question! Some stories are real, some are pretend, and some of the very best ones use a mix of both reality and make-believe to tell us something important. What do you think about the Elijah story?’ The mother’s answer didn’t tell the little girl what to think. It invited her to think — as a bona fide member of the interpretive community.

A transparently feeble argument

Photo: Richard Arculus,

I begin with a lengthy quotation:

“So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less than many generations of cumulative selection! Some people see this as a fundamental flaw in the whole theory of the blind watchmaker. They see it as the ultimate proof that there must originally have been a designer, not a blind watchmaker but a far-sighted supernatural watchmaker. Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events; maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible.

“This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. That, indeed, is what most of this book is about. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it.

“The more we can get away from miracles, major improbabilities, fantastic coincidences, large chance events, and the more thoroughly we can break large chance events up into a cumulative series of small chance events, the more satisfying to rational minds our explanations will be.”

— Dawkins R., “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design,” W. W. Norton & Co: New York NY, 1986, p.141.


This passage from a book by Richard Dawkins is the subject of this essay. I have quoted it at length in order to be fair to the original and in order that the present essay can be self-contained.

When I first read this passage, many years ago, I remember being puzzled by it. It sort of “threw” me. It seems at first as if it is a display of lucid rational argument, and it appears to carry the sort of force which a good argument carries. But, as I will explain, once you look at it more carefully both the lucidity and even the very notion that the above quotation is a reasoned argument become questionable.

There are several strands of thought that have become tangled to create this muddle. In order to untangle them, the following is divided up into sub-headings.

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[image: Frederick William Hayes The Rivals from Llanddwyn (c.1884)]


This week I was looking at a few websites and I found various repetitions of a statement that seems to be doing the round in atheist circles, namely that all of us disbelieve in most gods and the happy atheist simply goes one further. You can download a poster of all the gods that people have written about or made offerings to, and thus bolster your own atheism.

All I want to do this week is explain, briefly, why this sort of polemic (for that is all it is) won’t wash.

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Humpty Dumpty

Here is a letter that was published in New Scientist magazine about two months ago.

“I was intrigued by your claim that science is not a belief system (4 April, p.5). Surely what it is not is a faith system. Science is belief based on evidence: faith, on the other hand, is belief irrespective of evidence.

“Science gives rise to beliefs that fit the existing evidence, allowing for them to change should new evidence make that sensible.

“Faith takes beliefs and puts them on an untouchable pedestal where they remain, no matter what contradictory evidence there is.

“Most of us frequently employ a fairly scientific belief system. Take the simple example of the day of the week. When I woke up this morning, I believed it to be Thursday, based on the evidence of my memory. Had I then looked at my computer, my phone and a newspaper and seen that day given as Friday, I would have changed my belief, trusting the evidence of the computer, phone and newspaper over my memory. However, if I applied a faith-based belief system, I would have refused to take note of the contrary evidence and insisted that the day was Thursday, no matter what.

“It is lack of faith, not lack of belief, that makes science so special and so wonderful.”

Kate Szell, London, UK

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Does the universe suggest design, purpose, goodness or concern?

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

 ― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)


This widely quoted paragraph is the subject of this essay. I am mostly concerned with the last sentence, but let me first briefly comment on the opening that builds up the dramatic power. When you read the comment on suffering, it seems at first like a valid observation, one that “sees through” the “illusion” of the goodness of the world to all the harshness of “the truth of things”. But think a little. If you had to write a couple of sentences in which you tried to capture a fair portrait of what happens in the natural world during the minute it takes to compose a sentence, would this be the portrait? Of course not. The suffering is not to be set aside, but it is less than half the story of most life, and it is less than half the story of life on Earth. Are all the careful, sympathetic and fulfilling studies presented by naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough just some sort of rose-tinted spectacles and wishful thinking? No. Go and look in your garden, or in the forest, or the jungle, or in the river, or the ocean, or on the African plain. Is it the case that starvation and misery is the “natural state” of affairs? Or are they part of a natural state of affairs which has here been grossly miss-represented?

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The Grand Intention

This week we had another lecture in the area of the physics of the vacuum (see Whoops! A Universe). It was the 11th Dennis Sciama Memorial Lecture, given by Professor Philip Candelas of the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford. Here are the title and abstract:

 Simple Calabi-Yau Manifolds and the Landscape of String Vacua

 Abstract: It is widely known that there are a great many vacua of string theory. A small subset of these lead to four-dimensional worlds that are somewhat like the world that we observe. The great majority lead to worlds very different from our own. A vacuum is determined by a Calabi-Yau manifold together with certain extra structure. I will discuss the landscape of Calabi-Yau manifolds and a programme to find realistic string vacua based on simple cases.

You don’t need to understand the technical terms in order to follow the point I wish to make. All I want to emphasize here is that this lecture illustrates very well how completely wrong it is to describe the state of the universe in the absence of matter as somehow simple and not in need of explanation. Some of the best mathematical brains on the planet are puzzling over the nature of vacuum, and it is far from obvious or easy. And yet we continue to see utterly misleading headlines like the following (selected randomly from the web):

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Whoops! A Universe

Before I embark on this blog post, a few words for regular readers. I have to apologise for the blog falling dormant for a month. This was because I have been working intensely on a book (a physics textbook), and also because I have been mulling over what to write. Also, I put up quite a lot of content just before the dormant period so I hope there was enough to be going on with (see under resources/talks). Finally, regarding comments: thanks for all constructive comments. They are all much appreciated and encouraging. However it is hard to keep up with moderating them because I have had over 7000 comments in total, almost all of them spam. I hope some day to get some help with the filtering process, but until I do that the situation will continue to be slow.

The post you are reading now was prompted in part by a recent talk at the physics department here in Oxford. The talk was the 2015 Wetton Lecture, delivered by Professor Carlo Frenk, Director, Institute for Computational Cosmology, University of Durham, and it had the title
Everything from nothing, or how our universe was made

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The fish sticker

In America today, and increasingly in other parts of the world, you can see the above-right image (a fish with feet) proudly displayed on car windows, bumpers and the like. It is intended to signify support for rationality over superstition in general, and in particular for the Darwinian evolutionary account of biological history over the wish by some people to bring in miraculous “explanations”. However, the image is also a deliberate subversion of a Christian symbol (the fish, drawn a certain way, as shown above left), so it also implies or suggests a piece of pure illogic.

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