Sunday, 16 December 2007

Book review: God's Undertaker by John Lennox

Lennox, John C., God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion, 2007)

Imagine you knew nothing about how cars work. Imagine, then, that on first seeing a car and being told it was a Ford, you took to thinking that a person named Ford was inside the car, making it run. You would be wrong. And were you to open up the bonnet, have a look inside and learn the principles about how engines work, you would see you were wrong, and note that there was no need to introduce Mr. Ford to explain those principles. Suppose, then, you were to conclude that this knowledge made it impossible for you to believe in the existence of a Mr. Ford who designed the engine in the first place. You would be wrong again. The relevance to contemporary atheology should be obvious.

Dr. Lennox has been using this analogy - and the ones about Aunt Matilda's cake (of which scientists could tell its contents and nutritional value but not who or what it is for) and about the paper with writing on (about the meaning of which neither physical, chemical nor mathematical analysis would tell you a thing) - in talks for years. I know, because I was at one of them in Oxford in 2003. On that day he had been given half an hour to burn through all his material, so he spoke at breakneck speed and barely had time to catch breath. There's something of that vibe about this book, too. Over these 179 pages of fine print, Lennox seems to have been determined to cover as much ground as possible, which makes for either an exhilarating or an infuriating read, depending on the disposition of the reader. I loved it.

One immense positive of the book is that it clears up a whole mass of confusions over issues relating to the question in the title. First, he points out that to see this big argument as one between science and religion is to commit a category error (not to mention to ignore all the religious scientists out there); the argument is between two ways of understanding the results of science, between two worldviews: naturalism and theism[1]. Briefly, the naturalist sees the universe as a closed and self-sufficient system, while the theist sees the universe as caused by, ontologically dependent on and liable to inference from God. It's a categorisation which is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis' in the second chapter of Miracles.

Second, he points out that much scientific observation is open to many different interpretations and so cautions that many conclusions are "theory-laden", while explicitly steering well clear of any postmodern hyper-scepticism. Third, he explains just how a basically Christian worldview led to the emergence of modern science (the reasoning: God made the universe, therefore he could have made it however he liked, therefore the only way to find out how it works is to go and make studied observations). Fourth, he argues that the question "Is intelligent design science?" is misplaced; what we should be asking is "Is there scientific evidence for intelligent design?" (taken pan-scientifically). He clearly thinks there is, and goes on to explain way.

And so the rest of the book consists of a series of expositions and defences of teleological arguments, interspersed with Lennox taking apart some of the more ludicrous things to have come from the mouth of Peter "nothing exists" Atkins and others. Most of these arguments, both cosmological and biological, will be familiar to interested readers. Lennox makes clear that he could have stopped with the cosmological ones without delving into the realms of irreducible complexity and origin of life studies; but he explains he didn't think the atheists deserve to have those areas uncontested. Them's fightin' words.

However, in all this it is quite clear where Lennox's expert knowledge lies and where it doesn't. He is "Reader in Mathematics at the University of Oxford and Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at Green College [a graduate-only Oxford college]". During the first couple of chapters dealing with scientific methodology, worldview construction and inferences (i.e. Philosophy of Science) Lennox is clearly in his element, but this authoritative tone rather drops off in chapters 5-7 ("Designer universe?", "Designer biosphere?" and "The origin of life") as he relies heavily on quotations. Now, these are well-chosen quotations, and the arguments he constructs with them are cogent, but I was left longing for a return to the assurance of the first few chapters.

That return duly comes, as the discussion turns to information theory and hence Mathematics. Now, Lennox has been concerned on numerous occasions throughout the book to anticipate and rebut the objection that he's arguing for a "God of the gaps", insisting that abduction is a valid method of inference in science and that we make inferences to intelligent causes all the time. He also points out that many of these arguments are only possible because of discoveries made in the last fifty years, reinforcing the argument that the advance of science is friendly to what he is saying and that his arguments are based preciesly on what we do know, not on what we don't. However, it's when he turns to treating DNA in information theoretical terms that these ideas are really fleshed out:

In order to explain the next step in the argument we now turn to the realm of pure mathematics. If a conjecture [...] has been thought about for many years and all attempts to prove it true have failed, then, though mathematicians will not necessarily give up trying to prove it true, they may also mount an attempt to see if it is provably false [...] Why should we not apply the same kind of logic to the question of the origin of genetic information? Might not the difficulties involved in all attempts so far to give a naturalistic explanation for the origin of genetic information be sufficient reason to expend at least some of our intellectual energy inquiring if there is something like an information-theoretic parallel to the law of energy conservation?[2]

Lennox then goes on to spend about the next chapter and a half arguing for such a law, to the effect that "no molecular device is capable of generating any information that does not either belong to its input or its own informational structure", with supporting quotations from Peter Medawar and Kurt Gödel among others. He also takes a swipe at Dawkins' infamous "METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL" while he's at it. To me, this suggests a research programme. If this law of conservation holds, then what motivated researchers should be doing is studying the DNA sequences from the origin of life to homo sapiens and trying to identify points in history at which there is an information injection into the system, and how much. In bytes. Y'know, numbers. That thing evolutionary biology is so great at.

Furthermore, if information is conserved in this way, then it is most likely more fundamental than matter. And information implies intelligence. This is the argument with which Lennox closes: "In the beginning was the word..."[3]

Lennox provides the positive arguments his Oxford colleague Alister McGrath lacked in his reponses to Dawkins. This is a popular level book, it's an overview and, as I said at the start, the pace of it will not be to everyone's liking. It's not a textbook or a series of academic papers. But for what it is, it is very good book indeed, and comes recommended.

[1] Lennox doesn't intend for these two worldviews to be taken as exhausting all the possibilities; it's just that these are the two most obviously and publicly in conflict at the moment.
[2] pp. 149f.
[3] John 1:1


Steven Carr said...

Did Henry Ford really design the engines that go in Ford motor cars?

I think the Ford Motor Company would be interested in this libel.

Their engines are a little bit more modern than that.

thechristiancynic said...

I'd say that you're missing the point, Steven, which is to say that the analogy holds that an explanation of the motor itself does not oblige one to disavow the design of the car.

Not to mention that the accusation of libel is just silly. The claim might be false (and of course it is), but that doesn't make it libel by any stretch of the imagination. It is an analogy, after all, and it's not going to be perfect.

Come on now, you can do better than that.

Steven Carr said...

I see.

So the point of the analogy is that the Christian confidently says that X designed something, and it is false that X designed something.

I shall bear that in mind.

Who designed rabies?

mattghg said...

Well, I haven't received any writs as of yet. Sad to see your still extending the principle of uncharitable reading to this blog, Steven.

Come on now, you can do better than that.

That's not very cynical of you!

mattghg said...

Sorry, "you're", not "your".


Geoff said...

Interesting review, well put.
I have to say I found his swipe at Dawkins' "METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL" application disappointing.
Considering the numerous areas covered by this book it's necessary to have a certain amount of faith in the author, and his comments were flat-out lies.
He's also misleading to the point of dishonest on Anthony Flew and E Coli bacteria. I've assembled my evidence here: and welcome comments.