Comments about the Lennox and Dawkins debate

Hello Udo

Yesterday I watched the debate between Dawkins and Lennox, *Has Science Buried God?* I can’t say I would recommend it.

In a nutshell, I don’t think either of them are very good debaters. Lennox’s arguments were pretty typical drawing on the work of old school Christian apologists, pumped up with a dash of intelligent design rhetoric, none of which really has any scientific weight, from the perspective of the vast majority of the scientific community. 

The scientists who are part of this intelligent design movement are on the fringe, and really don’t have any credibility within the broader scientific community, but because they are scientists they come across as much more credible than they are outside the scientific community, especially among the vast majority of us who really have no idea about how science is supposed to be done.

Dawkins arguments are best summed up in his publications. I was amazed at how little of what he’s written about he actually drew on in the debate. Maybe it was nervousness or age is taking its toll on him? Not sure, be he really did not respond well to many of the questions posed by Lennox, and Lennox came across as much more poised and calm. If I had to say who won the debate, I’d say Lennox. Unfortunately for Lennox winning the debate does not necessarily mean the winner has put for the argument that is more believable when one looks at the totality of evidence on the subject available outside the debating arena.

What I really find interesting is that most people who watch the debate will actually conclude the person who won is the person who holds the position they agree with. I actually agree with Dawkins views but feel Lennox won the debate. If you really want to know which side of the argument is more true, in this case the argument was “Has Science Buried God?” then one really needs to invest a lot of time studying both sides. Only then I think can an informed opinion be made, and it is the studying part most people find it difficult to do. Equally important, one must enter the debate with the intention of actually discovering the truth, even if they find out the truth they discover is not the one they were hoping for.

I have been studying the God debate for close to 20 years now, and over that period have bounced back and forth, believing and not believing. But I could only due that if my mind was open to the truth, and I could only get to the truth by having some fundamental understanding of science and how scientists actually get to their conclusions, weather it be about God, particle physics or simply how much time it takes in your microwave to make the perfect batch of popcorn. 

Most Christians go to their graves believing the Bible, but haven’t read it. Most have their favorite verses they can recite, but the entire book never gets read. I don’t know of any other book that people buy with such regularity but have not read. It’s got to be the only book on the NY Times best seller list that very few people read from cover to cover. (Just joking here, but like many jokes there is an element of truth in it which is what makes the joke so funny.)

The same is true for most atheists. The average person who says they don’t believe, will likely not be able to summarize the arguments of the science community that support that belief. In fact, if you ask most people what they believe about anything they won’t be able to really support their belief with much other than their own personal experience, which is fine, but not very scientific. Lennox’s arguments, in my view would have been much stronger if he simply backed them up by faith. But then, he would have no reason to debate Dawkins, and a simple belief in faith generally does not propel one into the lime light, unless of course you are lucky enough to voted Pope of the Catholic Church. It is only when religion is pitted against science that it falls apart.

Most Christians I know have faith, and it you have faith you really don’t need a scientific explanation for God, Christianity or any other religion for that matter. There is even a growing community of Pastafarians, who believe in the Flying Spagetti Monster. In fact you can become a minister for only $20 (http://www.venganza.org/). 

My grandmother had faith, and was a devout Christian, and I believe her Christianity played a crucial role in enhancing the quality of her life, and I respect that. But just because it makes life better doesn’t make it true. The placebo effect has been known for some time, and although I don’t buy into religion, I do love my placebos (my specific vitamins are but one, and I take them daily believing they will make me healthier), and like Dan Ariely wrote in his recent book Predictable Irrationality “please don’t take my placebo away!”

So, that’s my take on the debate between Lennox and Dawkins, and my take on the God debate overall. I love having this discussion with people on either side of the debate, but find the discussions much more interesting when I have them with individuals who have studied both sides of the argument, or have at least adequately studied one side of it. I know very few people who fall into that category, but fortunately I have two.

That being said, enjoy the Lennox presentation of 19 March if you and your wife attend. He is a very interesting guy, and I’m sure will be enjoyed by many. I will be interested to hear what your thoughts are if you do go.

Have a great Sunday and give my best to your wife as well. It was really lovely meeting her.

Regards,

Smithy

 

Hi Smithy

Thank you for your lengthy comments after watching the debate. I too am very interested in the God-question and specifically in the relationship between science and Christian claims.

I have listened to the debate. Of course, it really wasn’t a debate in the formal sense of the word, but a discussion and a format I rather enjoyed. I thought that Lennox and Dawkins exchanged thoughts in a very respectable manner – probably what you’d expect from two British gentlemen!

About the merits of their views, much can be said, but I don’t think one should look at a debate to settle any issue – it’s not designed to accomplish this. The nature of a debate, and even of a once-off discussion like this, is always very limited. I think a debate is an opportunity to have your views heard by stating it, arguing for it validly and answering objections to it in the best way you can in the very restricted time available. Some debaters (like Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig) are extremely skilled in making the best use of their time in making a case for their views and in answering objections in a succinct manner. But much, much more can be said on any given topic. I think the time restriction in a debate is actually an invitation to further investigation because only then can the merits of a particular view really be evaluated (and as you rightly pointed out, this is where the hard work comes in). This is therefore the value of a good debate for me: not that a debater will, should or could persuade me to his point of view there and then, but that I will be stimulated to investigate the issues further. A good debater is someone who inspires me through what he says and how he says it, to go check out the truth for myself. Incidentally, that is why rhetoric as a main strategy in debate, is rather pointless, for if your arguments are only a clever exercise in rhetoric with no real substance, then it will be seen for what it is upon closer scrutiny afterwards.

I would agree that most people will pretty much still believe as they did before hearing a debate (even if we often do have a sense of who the better debater was). This is to be expected, since paradigm shifts usually do not happen suddenly. It is often a process with a mixture of emotional, intellectual and volitional elements and even at the end of such a process (of adopting a new paradigm of understanding) it is often still the case that many unanswered questions and unresolved issues remain.

If you don’t mind I want to give you my own short summary of what I heard both Dawkins and Lennox were saying in their discussion on the question of whether science has buried God. Since you say that you agree with Dawkins, I’d be interested to hear if you thought I gave a fair summary of both their views.

My understanding of Dawkins’ view is that science has made God superfluous; science can and eventually will explain all that can be known. Science, for example, has shown us that the diversity of biological life can be explained through natural processes such as natural selection and random mutation, and therefore require no appeal to any supernatural creator or designer of biological organisms. Even though science cannot yet explain many things – like the origin of the universe from nothing and the origin of life from inorganic matter – given enough time for scientific research, progress will be made and all matters can potentially be resolved. Dawkins also opposes the possibility of miracles and argues that it would stop science in its tracks. (By the way, I think his view makes sense given his naturalistic worldview, but how the methodology of science in itself can make a pronouncement on the possibility of miracles, I don’t understand). He also vehemently dismisses the idea that, even if there is a God, such a being would be interested in the lives of homo sapiens sapiens (which, of course, is not a scientific claim and makes me wonder on what basis Dawkins would presume to know the mind of God if such a being existed in his world).

As far as John Lennox goes, it seems to me that he is saying that the existence of God is a far better explanation for why the universe began to exist and why there should be such tremendous fine-tuning of the initial conditions and constants of the universe by which the emergence and flourishing of intelligent life would be made possible (even if life, due to these fine-tuned, somehow emerged naturally from non-living matter). Lennox seems to say that to have God as the ultimate explanation for these facts, is not an appeal to scientific ignorance – a God-of-the-gaps explanation – but is a valid explanation precisely because we have made scientific discoveries (not by ID theorists) of which both the Big Bang and the universe’s fine-tuning are examples. These facts point to an intelligent being that exists beyond space, time and matter (thereby having properties usually thought to belong to a being like God). Lennox also seems to suggest that science is not only limited in its explanatory power, but also in its explanatory scope. For example, science cannot account for objective morality, not because science hasn’t made the right discoveries yet, but simply because science gives descriptions of how things are, but cannot determine how things ought to be. (Of course, scientists can devise ethical theories that explain how we acquired certain behaviour based on socio-biological evolution, but given the lack of objective grounding, such theories would ultimately still only be morally descriptive and cannot become morally prescriptive.) The scientific methodology also has nothing to say about historical questions regarding Jesus’ existence, his miraculous life and the claims he made – it simply is not in the purview of science to do so.

Well, since both of us find discussions on the God-debate interesting, I’d love to hear your comments. I do, however, want to clear up a misunderstanding.

I do not think that the existence of God can be settled by science. The question of God is not a scientific question, for God is not a physical entity whose reality you would confirm or disconfirm by doing the right kind of experiment, by having a microscope strong enough or telescope big enough (assuming a good working definition of science is that it studies the mechanics of the natural world). What does seem valid is that the discoveries of science could add weight to the truth value of a premise in a philosophical argument for, or against, God’s existence. There are many philosophical arguments that claim to make the existence of God more probable than not, given certain scientific, historical and philosophical facts about the world we live in. Of course, not all people find all of these arguments convincing, but the fact that some highly respected and intelligent people do find it convincing should at least dispel the notion that to belief in God is simply a matter of blind faith, where faith is often misunderstood as accepting a set of beliefs devoid of any rational grounding. That is why belief in God is not at all like belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (a cute derivative of Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot) for which there is not a shred of evidence (in fact, a positive and devastating case can be made for the non-existence of the FSM and so I wouldn’t waste my $20).

Of course, how we come to faith in God, is usually not by setting out to prove God’s existence on the basis of some rigorous and undeniable arguments. But it doesn’t mean that there isn’t, in fact, a reasonable and rigorous case to be made for God’s existence, even if it is not accepted by all rational people (not many important things are accepted by all such people – there exist debates at the highest levels about almost all important matters). Thus, I am convinced that one can show that God exists, but I believe that we come to know God by the way he reveals himself to our inner being, by a direct experience of God. This is, I believe, why belief in God can be found among all kinds of people, of all races, ages, educational and economical backgrounds. That is why anybody could believe in God and personally be justified in their faith, even if they had minimal understanding of the Bible or personally can give no rational justification for their beliefs. Of course, this is not ideal; an uninformed faith is particularly susceptible to error and deception, but one cannot simply deny the validity of such faith by pointing to a person’s inability to rationally justify their own beliefs. Please note that I am not using someone’s personal experience of God as an argument for why somebody else should believe. I’m merely making the point that if God really exists and if God really does reveal himself to people, then wouldn’t one at least expect that most people would give testimony to such an experience?

One final comment. I don’t think that the question of God’s existence will simply be decided by a purely detached and cerebral approach that never commits to anything. Such an approach will inevitably leave us in the sway of popular opinion or let us be moved by the shifting sands of, as an example, the most current scientific theories. One can have strong convictions and commitments without being guilty of closed-mindedness. The important thing to realise is that if the Christian God exists, then he calls us to a relationship with him, not merely an acknowledgment of his existence. Relationships are all about trust and to trust someone always involves a certain amount of risk. But it is only when we take the risk and learn to trust someone, that we can really get to know them, and it is when we really get to know someone that they become all the more real to us. I believe a relationship with God works in much the same way. I believe there is enough evidence to believe that a personal God exists, so that to risk trusting this God is a reasonable step of faith and that the risk involved is more than rewarded for those who truly seeks to know God.

Thanks for the conversation. I know these kinds of conversations can take up a lot of one’s time, so please feel under no obligation to respond, but if you want to, then please take all the time you need.

Regards

Udo

 

Dear Udo

As much as I would like to respond in detail, I am afraid your final comment is very much true at this moment in my life. I have more demands on my time than there is time to meet those demands which makes the juggling act of what to do and what not to do a difficult one. 

I do thank you though for taking time to give me your take on the debate between Dawkins and Lennox, and the broader debate in general. I fully understand and appreciate your perspective as it is one that I too not long ago agreed with. 

As a matter of “personal policy” I have decided not to debate the issue as I believe, and as you also suggest in your email below, that very few people will change their minds due to a debate. Besides, I am probably less adept at it than Dawkins, so if he was not persuasive, then it would be rather irrational of me to think my arguments would persuade someone as knowledgeable as yourself. 

It appears as though we both understand the gist of both sides of the argument, and I think for now we can agree to disagree. If either of us changes our view on the subject, I suspect it will be as a result of our own investigations, not due to the opinion of someone else, especially one exchanged in an email. 

I will say this has been a very enjoyable exchange of views, and a rare one for me. Perhaps one day our paths will cross and we will continue this discussion from the point we left it. Until then I wish you and your wife well in your journey.

Best,

Smithy

 

Hi Smithy

I understand perfectly. You are welcome at anytime in the future to resume our conversation.

All the best for your endeavours.

Regards
Udo

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