Theism versus atheism: Uninspiring VC Open Lecture

John Lennox (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Last Tuesday I attended the Vice Chancellor’s Open Lecture at UCT. The topic was “A Matter of Gravity – God, the Universe and Stephen Hawking” and given by Oxford mathematician Professor John Lennox. I thought it’d be a good opportunity to see the theistic side being well-presented by a man who was highly educated and had debated Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, amongst others. Overall, I found myself disappointed by what didn’t strike me as a particular good lecture. You can read the UCT summary, as well as get links to the recording, over here.

The lecture was certainly popular, with over 700 replies being received within two days of the invitation being sent out. In the end the lecture had to moved to a bigger hall. I’ve only been to one other VC Open Lecture, that of, also accommodationist, Bruce Alberts, editor of Science, which was rather empty for such a high-profile member of the scientific community.

I won’t say it’s impossible that some of what he said may have value. I just don’t know enough about physics to comment on his criticisms of Stephen Hawking but I don’t recall him ever offering any evidence or way of confirming any of his statements. It tended to the vague and maintained that the only way the universe could come into being was through an uncreated creator. It’s a position that is pure faith and can’t easily be confirmed. In contrast while I don’t understand advanced physics I do know that it’s theories are based on evidence and that it makes predictions which have been born out and allowed our civilisation to advance in undeniable ways.

I expected the “we can’t explain this, therefore god” sort of thing rearing it’s head but what really disappointed me here was the actual quality of his arguments. As he went along he both used, and then pointed out the problem with, a logical fallacy and a number of old arguments for god, nearly always without addressing the rebuttals which should be well known by now. For example, he mentions that many incredibly intelligent scientists were religious as part of his argument that science and religion are not in conflict. But obviously this doesn’t show anything of the sort. It just shows that people can hold contradictory beliefs. I’m sure he would object if we said many priests had molested children and therefore there is no conflict between being a priest and molesting children. Further along though he points out, in a different context but it still applies here, that these sort of questions aren’t decided by a vote! Why bring up the religious scientists or religion driving science when that doesn’t actually show anything?

Well, he wants to use religious scientists to show that the conflict is not between science and religion but between naturalistic and theistic world views. It’s a conflict between the belief that what we can observe is all there is and the belief that there is something spiritual. But this ignores the whole issue of methodology, how one learns something in religion versus science. Whether you are a religious scientist or not your science is based on objective evidence, usually acquired through experimentation, and repetition while in religion you “learn” through unrepeatable, subjective events like revelations. The way that science and religion operates are contradictory.

I’d have to go back to check but I’m pretty sure he also contradicted himself, ironic since he went after Hawking for supposedly making that same error. Early in the lecture I believe he said that his god was not the god of the gaps and was not a deistic god that set up the universe then sat back but was a personal god who was actively involved in the world. What’s odd then is that he seems to move away from that further into his talk. When he was explaining the concept of god and why scientists missed it he used the engine as an example. You can explain how it works using mechanical laws but those laws will not tell you who designed the engine. Similarly he claimed we could use physical laws to explain how the universe works but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t intelligently designed. While it’s a pretty good defence of god it happens to contradict his earlier statement as a personal god, involved in the universe, would be detectable as he moves through the physical laws of the universe. You can’t have fully explained physical laws and room for an interventionist god.

In the end, while he did at times make some decent points, I did not find his arguments good in general nor did I find him convincing. It seems, as with most religious arguments, that unless you start with the presupposition of a god and are attempting to prove that, it’s not something you would just stumble upon now. The evidence just isn’t there and that’s the most reliable thing we have.

George Branch (Source: Who’s Who SA)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a related talk. The UCT Student Free Society Insitute organised a response to John Lennox by enlisting Emeritus Professor George Branch, who presented a talk on Friday entitled “EVOLUTION: Scientific Advances and Appropriate Religious Responses.” When I was in first year bio I had Professor Branch lecture the section on evolution and it was actually his lecture that spurred me to read The Selfish Gene, my first book by Dawkins, so I do owe him a debt of gratitude. That aside, I must express some doubts about how appropriate the talk was.

First off, I want to contrast the talks. Lennox’s was so full we needed to move to a new location. For Branch’s response we were in a much smaller venue, which didn’t fill up, late on a Friday and with music intruding on the venue from whatever else was going on in the building. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the content on evolution. I’d heard most of it before, either in class or reading on my own, but the talk was supposed to be in response to Lennox’s visit and yet I don’t recall him mentioning evolution at all. It would have been far more appropriate to have a physicist speak than a rebuttal on a completely different topic.

Even stranger, the UCT FSI was formed from the remains of the UCT Atheists and Agnostics society and aims to provide “a forum for those with honest, rational scepticism about the supernatural to come forth” which made it strange that they chose a Christian to come and talk. That’s embracing the supernatural and in fact the end of the talk was devoted, like most of Lennox’s, to reconciling science and religion! Far from rebutting Lennox’s talk it just supported it, agreeing that scientism was a problem and that it was the naturalistic and theistic world views, rather than science and religion, that were in conflict. It might have been honest but it didn’t seem to support the FSI aims when Branch agreed that science was built on facts, religion on belief (which is why they don’t conflict) and that his religious belief could not be explained rationally!

The second talk too wound up being a bit disappointing as it didn’t address anything that Lennox said, other than to support his attempt to separate the domains of science and religion, in an admittedly irrational way and presented by the society that’s meant to promote a rational world view.

I must also acknowledge some of the arguments here were taken from Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True (You can read his most recent piece on the incompatibility of science and religion.) and PZ Meyers at Pharyngula. I’ve been reading both of them for years and I cannot find the specific posts were I got various points from so I’m just linking to the home pages.

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2 thoughts on “Theism versus atheism: Uninspiring VC Open Lecture

  1. I personally dont see the apparent contradiction of the UCT FSI organising a talk by a christian speaker as the lecture was on appropriate religious responses to scientific advancement (using evolution as a case study) which could more acurately be discribed by someone prescribing to a dogma, it should also be mentioned that the lecture was not titled “A John Lennox rebuttal” and I think the purpose was to show that you dont have to disregard all empirical evidence and logic to have a theistic belief

  2. The laughable posters definitely tried to frame Prof Branch’s talk as a rebuttal to Prof Lennox’s. Overall quite embarrassing I would say on the skeptic’s side… I don’t think it can be explained as other than a misstep and an assumption that scientific belief in evolution belongs squarely and solely to the atheist camp. It is precisely this assumption that Prof Lennox addresses in terms of the conflict of worldviews and not, as some would have it, a conflict between science and religion.

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