Wednesday, March 18, 2015

John Lennox - Talk #1: "Do Science and God Mix?"

I attended Christian evangelist John Lennox's talk last night here at the University of Waterloo. Rather than produce a polished critique -- which I can't do for lack of time and other reasons -- I'll just record some notes about what he said and add some brief rebuttals. Statements of Lennox that seem particularly misleading and/or egregiously false are marked with *; the more stars, the more egregious the claim. Exact quotes are rendered to the best of my ability and are set off by "...". Paraphrases are set off by '...'. My comments are in brackets.

If you missed the talk, you can get practically the same experience by watching Lennox's videos on Youtube. Lennox used the same examples, the same stories, and the same jokes, often word for word. In particular I recommend

Once you've seen these three, you've gotten something like 90% of the content of last night's talk. Originality is not one of Lennox's vices.

Lennox's main rhetorical tools consisted of jokes, anecdotes, ridiculing his opponents as stupid, dishonest, or both, and appeals to emotion. There was very little science or mathematics or logic or reason involved. I go to the Pascal lectures as often as I can in the hopes that someday someone will present some good arguments for Christianity, but thus far I have always been disappointed.

"Militant atheism": [Lennox started with this cliché, which I've discussed before. It's a good bet that if you hear somebody say "militant atheist" you're dealing with a propagandist or shoddy thinker.]

* 'Peter Higgs (atheist) and Bill Phillips (Christian) both won Nobel prizes in physics, so science can't be incompatible with religion': [This does not follow at all. When we say 'science is incompatible with religion' we don't mean that no scientist holds religious beliefs; we mean that the beliefs themselves are at odds. People hold all sorts of inconsistent beliefs. After all, Lennox argues elsewhere that Christianity decries violence, despite the fact that there are thousands of examples of Christians committing violent acts, from the Crusades to the present day.]

"Science is Christianity's gift to the world; it arose from belief in the rationality of God": [I think this is an unreasonable extrapolation. After all, we can trace the roots of modern science to the ancient Greeks, such as Archimedes, and some say the first modern scientists were actually Muslims such as Ibn al-Haytham. If Christianity were solely responsible for modern science, then why did it take 1600 years of Christianity for it to start?]

"Atheism is a delusion: a persistent false belief despite countervailing evidence" [No evidence provided for this assertion]

He repeats his familiar jokes; the person who met him at University and said, "Do you believe in God? Oh, of course you do -- you're Irish"; his riposte to the remark that "Religion is for people who are afraid of the dark" is "Atheism is for people who are afraid of the Light". [As I remarked before, a lot of Lennox's schtick consists of his recounting his bon mots and relating how much the audience (or the Internet) appreciated them. The man definitely has an ego.]

"Germany's leading psychiatrist, Manfred Lutz": [Another typical creationist ploy: credential inflation. Everybody who agrees with them is "eminent", "world famous", "world-class", etc. ]

'Atheism is just a projection, to never be held responsible for bad conduct': [Except that atheists are sometimes more ethical than theists. See, for example, R. E. Smith, G. Wheeler, and E. Diener, Faith without works: Jesus people, resistance to temptation, and altruism, J. Applied Social Psychology 5 (1975), 320-330.]

"Atheists are confused about who God is." 'When Michael Shermer showed me a list of gods and said I was atheist with respect to them', Lennox thought, "What spectacular intellectual ignorance! He obviously knows nothing about the gods of the Ancient Near East"; 'they were descended from the heavens and earth, but the Christian god created the heavens and earth': [Another typical Lennox ploy: all the people he argues against are 'ignorant', 'deluded', etc. Much of his schtick consists in stories about how stupid everyone else is and how smart Lennox is. For my part, I think Shermer's point is quite good. There are, after all, other monotheisms, and I suppose Lennox does not adhere to them. The fact that the Christian god has some supposedly unique attributes does not detract from Shermer's point; every god has some unique attributes not shared by others.]

"In the first line of Genesis, God creates spacetime" [Not true; it says nothing about the modern conception of spacetime. Another typical example of Christians taking credit for something undeserved.]

** "The more you know of the universe, the more you admire the genius of the God who did it." [Maybe Lennox admires the Christian god, but I don't. Any god that creates the rabies virus and the Trypanosoma brucei protozoan is obviously morally depraved.]

* 'When we see water boiling, and ask why, a scientist will explain about heat conduction and the boiling point of water, and so forth, but the real reason is because I want a cuppa tea' "Scientists can't admit personal agency and intentionality as an explanation." "Professors can't grasp it because they think the scientific explanation is the only one". [On the contrary, personal agency is used as an explanation in all sorts of scientific endeavors, such as archeology. It is rejected in biology because (a) we have no evidence of any 'person' that was involved in terrestrial biology before people existed and (b) we understand mechanisms such as mutation and selection that can explain the biological diversity we see. "Agency" as an explanation in the absence of evidence for an agent was addressed in an article of Wilkins and Elsberry, which Lennox could fruitfully read.]

"The question, who created God?, doesn't apply to an eternal God, it applies to created gods": [Misleading, because the question 'who created God?' is a rejoinder to the common Christian assertion that 'everything that exists has a cause'. If you can say the Christian god existed eternally, why not say the universe did so, too?]

* Lennox objected to the word "faith" used to mean "blind faith". He claimed the word had been "redefined" and this redefinition was a "willful and deliberate twisting" of the "real definition". [Well, tough, Prof. Lennox. Just go a dictionary and you'll read definition #2 of faith: "Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof". That is not a "redefinition" or a "twisting", but just one of the ways the word can be used. If you object to words having different meanings, maybe you should brush up on your linguistics.]

* Lennox went on to equate the word "faith" with "belief system". He describes how he bested Peter Singer in a debate when Singer asserted that "atheism is not a faith" by replying, "Why, Peter, I thought you believed in it!" [It is foolishness to assert that a word with well-accepted multiple meanings must be used only one way. Lennox's equation of "faith" with "belief system" is merely one of the meanings of the word "faith"; in one dictionary, that would be definition 2.2: "A strongly held belief". Under definitions 1, 2, and 2.1, it is not correct to describe atheism as a "faith"; under definition 2.2, it might be. And even that is subject to debate, because atheism can more reasonably understood as a lack of belief in something, not a belief in something.]

* "Faith in Christianity is exactly the same as faith in science". [No, it isn't at all. This is a completely ridiculous claim. Christianity asserts all sorts of truth claims, like the existence of a supernatural deity, the effectiveness of prayer, and (for example) the fact that "true believers" can "drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them". I don't see many Christians testing these claims in a scientific fashion, and I certainly don't see Lennox testing this last one.]

'Einstein and Polkinghorne said that faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe is a prerequisite to do physics': [I don't agree. I don't think the universe is necessarily "rationally intelligible" and I don't think you need this assumption to do science. Rather, you attempt to find and describe regularities and often you fail.]

"All schools are faith schools because they're all based on a world view." [Word games. I already pointed out that this is true only under definition 2.2, not other definitions.]

"If the mind is the end result of a mindless unguided process, can you trust it?" [In fact, we don't trust it. Modern science has revealed numerous ways in which people make cognitive mistakes. More importantly, there is no reason that a mindless unguided process can't result in correct decision-making.]

*** "Two world-class philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel" have raised this point [above]. [Well, the high regard that Plantinga and Nagel are held in is itself very good evidence for something quite wrong in the academic practice of philosophy. If you can't find the errors and bogus assumptions in Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism", then you haven't tried very hard. (For the lazy, you can read the devastating critiques of Plantinga by "world-class philosophers" Paul Churchland and Geoff Childers and Feng Ye. I wonder if Lennox has read any of these.)]

* "You can't explain the semiotics of the words "roast chicken" in terms of paper and ink." [Well, no, but nobody would claim that you can.] "You need intelligence." [But "intelligence" isn't supernatural.] "The explanatory power of chemistry and physics doesn't extend to semiotics." [Asserted but not proved. For a detailed explanation of the meaning of "roast chicken", you need to understand the evolutionary history of humans and chickens and the social evolution of language and food and cooking. It doesn't have a one-line explanation.]

** "Whenever you see language you infer intelligence." 'You see "roast" in English and you infer intelligence. Then you see the 3.7 billion letters of DNA and you don't? What's wrong there?' [What's wrong is conflating natural language with DNA. DNA differs in many ways from natural language, one of the most important being the lack of compressibility. We know how DNA evolves through processes like mutation, selection, recombination, genetic drift, and so forth, so how its information is accumulated and changed is not that mysterious. Typical creationist ploy.]

"Information itself is not material. Information is not reducible to physics and chemistry." [Asserted but not proved. What is an example of information not in a physical medium?]

** "The default position in society is atheism and naturalism - you can do that in public if you want, but not Christianity" [Utterly ridiculous. While I write this I am watching an episode of the TV show "Chicago Fire" where a minister is saying things like "We're not operating on God's timetable, are we? We don't understand God's plan -- how can we? And let me tell you, this is where faith comes in. Faith can help us see His message in our lives." Until quite recently, you'd never see an atheist on TV depicted as sympathetically as this minister. Religion, and Christianity, absolutely pervades every aspect of society in North America. How many atheists are members of Congress? Or MP's in Canada? What national holiday is coming up here in Canada? But this is just the usual Christian trope about how they are victimized, persecuted, etc. by the evil secularists.]

'Scientists who are Christians' "have been silenced by their colleagues". [No real evidence provided. And isn't it just a little ironic that this claim is being made by a Christian evangelist who is being given space for three public religious lectures sponsored by a public university? The exact same claim was made four years ago by Mary Poplin in her Pascal lecture. Maybe the series should be retitled "The Christian Victimhood Lectures".]

"I believe in the full inspiration and authority of Scripture". [Well, then he's not acting as a scientist. Scientists don't believe in the full inspiration and authority of any book. In science, truth claims are subject to debate and can fall with the weight of evidence.]

* "The Big Bang ... was fiercely resisted ... the editor of Nature said that 'it'll give too much leverage to people who believe the Bible": [I am not an historian of physics, but as far as I can see, this is incorrect. In the 1950's and early 1960's there were at least two competing theories, the "steady-state" and "Big Bang" models, and there was evidence in support of both of these. The consensus slowlychanged in support of the Big Bang as new evidence emerged, but there were still holdouts. I see no evidence that it was "fiercely resisted". The "editor of Nature" referred to is John Maddox, and his editorial (behind paywall) never said anything like "it'll give too much leverage to people who believe the Bible". Here is what Maddox said (in part): "Creationists and those of similar persuasions seeking support for their opinions have ample justification in the doctrine of the Big Bang. That, they might say, is when (and how) the Universe was created. The reality of the event is accepted. The question of its cause, in the absence of time, is a matter for the imagination. Moderate creationists are no doubt content with that inference.

"Luckily for the rest of us, moderate creationists' more impatient (and noisy) brethren seem more concerned to demonstrate that the whole world began just a few thousand years ago, which is why they have impaled themselves on the hook of trying to disprove the relatively recent (and terrestrial) geological record. But, in the long run, the impatient creationists will have to retreat to the Big Bang..."
I leave it to the reader of this blog to decide if Lennox has fairly summarized Maddox's view.]

About evolution: "the question is: can this mechanism do what is ascribed to it? No, at several different levels". "A child ought to be able to see that evolution cannot be responsible for the origin of life"; that claim is "a complete bamboozling fog". [Yet another implication by Lennox that his opponents are either stupid or dishonest. I don't know anybody that says that the first replicator arose by "evolution". Lennox claimed that Dawkins said this, but I couldn't find it in Dawkins' writings anywhere.]

*** "From the perspective of theoretical computer science, you'll see that natural processes cannot produce life." [Well, this at least is in my area of expertise. I am a theoretical computer scientist and I've followed the creation-evolution debate fairly closely. I do not know a single claim from theoretical computer science that has this implication. On the contrary, there are many results from the field of artificial life that imply the opposite. Just to name one paper, see Koza, J. R., Artificial life: Spontaneous emergence of self-replicating and evolutionary self-improving computer programs. In C. G. Langton (Ed.), Artificial life III, 1994, pp. 225–262.]

"Lawrence Krauss made a catastrophic mistake when discussed philosophy." "Stephen Hawking doesn't understand any philosophy". "Peter Atkins" said mathematics created the universe and Lennox responded "That was the stupidest thing I've ever heard." [Yes, all of Lennox's opponents are drooling morons, barely capable of reason. Christian charity in abundance!]

At this point the question and answer session began. [No live questions from the floor were permitted -- I suspect this was to avoid the embarrassment of tough questions from previous Pascal lectures. Instead, people had to submit questions via text. This is an excellent way to weed out tough questions, and indeed all the questions read were softballs.]

About existence of extraterrestrial life and its compatibility with the Bible: "Yes, it exists - it's God". [Oh, come on. Any reasonable person would understand the question is about the existence of life, similar to terrestrial life, existing on other planets. I dislike this kind of evasion.]

Self-creation of the universe is "logically false". [No, it isn't. Mathematical logic discusses the world of propositions, not physical events.]

* "A word-based creation is utterly profound. Hoyle was amazed that this was found in the Bible." [In the longstanding tradition of atheists and agnostics being "amazed" by claims by theists. I doubt very much that Lennox's account is accurate. No educated person in the Western world would be ignorant of John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Claiming Hoyle did not know this is absurd.]

"People become Christians and get peace": [proffered in support of the truth of Christianity. Sorry, but people get peace from all sorts of religions and philosophies, but that doesn't imply any of them are true.]

Quoting Andrew Sims: "The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally." [An evident exaggeration. Just google "spirituality and health" and you'll get 105,000,000 hits, including many articles in the scholarly literature on precisely this subject. By the way, among Christian sects, Mormons are particularly healthy. Does this suggest the truth of Mormonism?]

"You can come back in a year and find 500 people transformed by atheism and I'll give you 5000 people transformed by Christianity." [Well, considering atheists are outnumbered by Christians in Ireland, England, Canada, and the US, this should hardly be surprising.]

"Jesus claimed to die for people's sins and you can test that." [How? Design an experiment. Perform it. Publish your results. Then we'll talk.]

"The golden rule is found in all cultures, and you'd expect that if we were made in the image of God." [Doesn't follow; replace "golden rule" with "murder" and what conclusion do you get? BTW, you'd also expect it if it is a product of our evolutionary history. There is some evidence for this; see the work of primatologist Frans de Waal.]

*** "Christianity is not a merit-based faith, based on good deeds." [An evident misrepresentation, which refuses to acknowledge an old debate in Christianity: are Christians justified by faith alone or by faith plus works? Support for both views can be found in the Bible. To claim that Christianity is not based on good deeds, when substantial parts of the Christian world believe this, is intellectually dishonest. Perhaps Lennox would claim that those who disagree are not "true Christians", but this would be an example of the "No True Irishman" fallacy.]


Steve Watson said...

I couldn't pass judgement on Hawking et al, but given the hash he makes of multiple points, I'd say Lennox doesn't know any philosophy either.

Norman Strong said...

Hmm, I agree that Lennox was being brash and dismissive of many different people, but you seem to be doing the exact same thing yourself. Not to mention that many of your rebuttals seem to be in the exact same form as his. That is, changing the meaning of what he was saying or skipping over his point.

For example, saying the word faith is being used improperly is "well, tough" seems to be missing the point. Faith really does just mean a strong belief, just like in the link you gave, that is the first and should be the most commonly used definition. You said atheism doesn't fall under that definition and neither do schools, but as we all know A->B does not mean B->A, and all of science is saying A is probably true since A->B and we have lots of cases where B is true. We have strong confidence in that our scientific laws are true. Not to mention empiricism requires strong confidence that what I see is actually real, and there is no way to prove such a statement.

I also take particularly disagree at you saying Christianity ha a merit based acceptance. It is clearly stated that faith is sufficient. See John 3:16, Acts 16:31, Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:8-9. In fact some of those specifically say it is not by works. However, we then have a number of verses that say faith should beget works, so we have "faith without works is dead" and things like Jesus' parable of the goats and the sheep. So being a christian implies doing works, but works don't imply being a christian.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

"Faith really does just mean a strong belief": arguing against your claim that it "really does just mean" anything is precisely what I did. "Faith" has a number of meanings and it is absurd to insist only yours is the correct one.

"It is clearly stated that faith is sufficient": take it up with Catholics, many of whom believe that faith alone is not sufficient.

GalileoUnchained said...

I had a similar reaction to John Lennox here after a lecture in Seattle 2 years ago.

Dude should stick to mathematics.

lukebarnes said...

Good stuff, Jeff. Plenty of groans, there. Especially credential inflation.

"The common Christian assertion that 'everything that exists has a cause'."

That is not how the cosmological argument goes. It is occasionally how atheists present the argument (Rebecca Goldstein, for example), but all of its main theistic defenders are at pains to deny that premise, rightly or wrongly. Responding to that "version" of the argument is like critiquing a laymans "the big bang was a big explosion" version of modern cosmology.

The point of the cosmological argument is not that God exists eternally but that God exists necessarily. The atheist could say that the argument proves a necessary being, and that being is the universe. Or could deny that the argument proves anything, perhaps by denying the relevant version of the principle of sufficient reason. "Who made God?" is not the best way to phrase this response.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Luke: I am aware of the distinction between the "common Christian assertion" and the cosmological argument.

But, you see, claims like "God exists necessarily" are just philosophical babble, as are phrases like "begin to exist" and "cause". You're a physicist, so you know as well as I do that "cause" is a vague and imprecise term, and it could well be that there are genuinely uncaused events (such as radioactive decay).

As for Feser, don't make me laugh. He's the perfect example of someone who thinks he is thinking, all the while manipulating vague terms as if they were mathematical objects.

oldgarageluvver said...

Thank you Jeff for taking the time to post this. Interesting.
I'm amazed that in 2015 so many people still believe in religious nonsense.
The mental gymnastics involved to self deceive must be tiring for them.

JvO said...

Yes and no, it's all a matter of humility and if you want to be at the top of the grade take notice of the Teacher who said;" I have got much more to tell you, much more than you can handle !" ....... If we pitch cosmic accident against intelligent design I would say we turn science, like fire, from a good tool into a bad master, probably in more ways than one. Actually the whole question is an ambiguous one suggesting that there could be a reason for God to disapprove of that which He used to create this universe, that which we call science but that in reality is an infinitely small portion of His wisdom. God’s wisdom and science are perfectly compatible, if there is any suggestion that they are not, it is nothing less than a presumptuous pride on the part of puny man pulling himself up by his bootlaces. Job 38:3-5

Just a question or two:
What is a 5 year old's saving grace not to be electrocuted?
Is it his knowledge of electronics?
Or his obedience to his dad not to poke those scissors in that power point?
What does this suggest to us in our relationship to our Heavenly Father with an infinitely greater knowledge gap and infinitely greater love.?
What does that tell us about;
discipline and
faith ?

If we have no intelligent answers on how we deal with these matters and how to live in harmony with our fellow human beings in a responsible and rewarding way on planet Earth , how will we ever graduate to our higher calling?
Do God and man's interpretation of science mix? I'll leave that to your imagination.

GalileoUnchained said...

JvO: If we presuppose God, then your point makes sense.

I don't presuppose God. Bible verses won't convince me.

JvO said...

Hi Galileo, you made your point and I accept that.When it's all said and done we all presuppose from time to time on issues that are not black and white. My reason for sharing with you my thoughts on God and His word, the Bible, is because that's where I found my purpose, direction,fulfillment and hope in life that goes beyond life on this planet. I wish the same for you or anyone who is seeking for this.
Kind regards, Jim

Steve Watson said...

JvO: You may presuppose whatever you like, but it is *not* a presupposition that there is little to no evidence for, and considerable evidence against, the Christian God and various other claims in the Bible. That is a fact, and I do mean a black-and-white one.

JvO said...

Steve, the question was;" do God and science mix" I have given my opinion on this in a broad outline and gave a practical example of how it could affect mankind if we assume that we know it all and have the answer for everything. I would like to give you another example also on a scientific level. We live in a world that is confronted by a phenomenon called global warming. We largely know the ins and the outs of it and what to do to prevent it, but the problem as we all know is not the science aspect, but human nature. You see, we, mankind, we are a clever bunch, but all too often too clever for our own good and too selfish to do something about it.

GalileoUnchained said...

Steve: What arguments or evidence do you find most compelling to argue for the Christian god?

Are these arguments what made you a Christian, or was there some other reason?

Steve Watson said...

Galileo: ?? I think you have misread my comment in a way that reverses its meaning. I am an atheist. To be clear: it is an observed fact, not a "presupposition", that the evidence is very much against Christian belief.

JvO: Your writing is....unclear. To respond to the only point I can make sense of: except for certain kinds of religious people, pretty much no one thinks "that we know it all and have the answer for everything". Certainly not scientists, whose business it is to know and ask the questions at the boundaries of our knowledge.

GalileoUnchained said...

Steve: Thanks for the clarification.

JvO said...

Thanks Steve for that acknowledgement in part, that nobody thinks we know it all. Why then your presumption on the existence of the God of our creation that no reputable scientist rules out.
As for the other part that was not clear to you, I'll put it another way. Would you not agree that mankind all too often has been too clever for its own good? And when you look around and read the daily papers, would you not agree we need protection from ourselves? I used as an example this time how we knowledgeable people are not dealing with global warming issues, yes a potential...Self-destruct!

JvO said...

Yes agreed Steve that applies to all of us; at the boundary of knowledge we stand. There is indeed a limit as to how much and what we are able to comprehend on this side of the grave. To venture beyond I don’t think that curiosity or hunger for knowledge would do anything for anybody. As the saying is; “ It is not what you know, but who you know”, that matters.

uchitrakar said...

God is said to be spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, all-pervading, one, unborn, uncreated, without any beginning, without an end, everlasting and non-composite. If God does not exist, then there will be no one about whom it can be said that he is spaceless, timeless, immortal etc.
So God does not exist means nothing is timeless in this universe. If nothing is timeless, then why was it necessary for science to explain how anything could be timeless? This is because in special theory of relativity it has been shown that at the speed of light time totally stops.
By denying the existence of God science is denying the existence of any permanent state of timelessness in this universe. In spite of that science has shown how a state of timelessness can be reached. Is it not self-contradictory on the part of science?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Wonderful word salad, uchitrakar! But you forgot to randomly capitalize words.

Personally, I think there are an uncountable number of gods, and each of them has all the characteristics you mentioned except "one".

uchitrakar said...

But this does not answer my question: What is timeless in this universe that required an explanation from science?

uchitrakar said...

Here is one more question. If science shows that every aspect of this phenomenal world, including the origin of the universe also, can be explained without invoking any kind of god, then that will definitely go against all kinds of supernatural claims, and naturalism will establish itself as the ultimate truth. However there is at least one aspect of nature that has not yet been addressed properly by the physicists. And it is this: The prevailing view among the physicists regarding the origin of the universe is that it has actually originated from nothing. If it is true, then that will mean that not only the total matter and energy, but the total space-time as well, of this universe have originated from nothing. So not only its total matter and energy, but its total space-time also should always remain zero, because all the four of them have originated from nothing. Physicists have so far shown how the total matter and energy of our present universe always remain zero, but they have not yet shown how its total space-time also always remains zero. As the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, so the question to be addressed by the physicists will be: How does the total space-time of an ever-expanding universe always remain zero?
If science cannot provide a suitable answer to this question, then the naturalistic world-view of modern science will prove to be inadequate for explaining the real world.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It is an excellent helping of word salad. I hope you enjoyed it.

uchitrakar said...

And I will repeat this question again: what is timeless in this universe that required an explanation from science?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Repeating nonsense doesn't make it more meaningful, I'm afraid. Go bother someone else.

Bert Brouwer said...

I believe in a god who in some cases acts from a zero-tolerance policy.

JvO said...

I see what you're saying Bert, but I wonder what you mean by some cases?

Bert Brouwer said...

God only knows.

Bert Brouwer said...

...but 0ne day, someday the M@hsiah will deliver us from ign0rance.

uchitrakar said...

"Repeating nonsense doesn't make it more meaningful, I'm afraid. Go bother someone else."

So you mean to say that science has not shown in STR that at the speed of light time totally stops?