Tag Archives: evolution

The Icing on the Cake

12 Jul

There are some things that I don’t understand in the often acrimonious debate that takes place around the subject of evolution. And I am not talking about geology or genetics. The lines between scientific fact, the subjective interpretation of objective data and deeply held personal convictions sometimes appear a little too blurred for respectful debate. Proponents of one metaphysical agenda or another appear to be seeking that which will uphold their own view rather than engaging in dialogue as such. Proofs and counter-proofs are lobbed backwards and forwards but, like WWI trench warfare which left millions dead with no real territorial gain, nothing of any import moves.

It is natural that we want to understand where we came from and how life began. That’s what science is about, the search for understanding. And in that search “God did it” will never be a satisfactory answer, always inviting the subsequent question “OK, but how did God do it?”. At this present time at least, whether one accepts spontaneous abiogenesis or insists on the need for a transcendent creator remains essentially a philosophical question; an end to the evolution-creation debate would not appear to be in sight.

For me, though, it is the wrong place to start. It’s like disputes about the icing (frosting, for US readers) forgetting that there is a cake. No cake, no icing. Argue as much as you like about the icing, but unless you understand the cake, it really is a secondary issue.

Life itself, including the complex life-forms that inhabit planet earth, needs an environment conducive to life. Sounds obvious, I know, but is often left out of the equation. Without Higgs bosons (yes, it’s them again – they have kept me inspired for the best part of a week now), one of the many particles that sprang into existence in the first milliseconds of the big bang, we have no cake. And I’ll say it again – no cake, no icing.

The balance that exists in and between all the other fundamental particles and forces that emerged from the void – if we can call it that, as before that moment there was not even empty space, no space, no nothing – is beyond calculation. Even the most optimistic probability theory defines such figures as, quite simply, impossible.

N49, the brightest supernova remnant in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Image credit: NASA/CXC/STScI/JPL-Caltech/UIUC/Univ. of Minn.

Following the laws that govern how matter and energy behave, the building blocks of life were then formed over billions of years of intergalactic history. In the process known as stellar nucleosynthesis, stars became production lines of heavier elements, some of them turning supernova and spewing their innards across space, seeding the gas clouds that would later condense into stars and planetary systems such as ours with the atoms needed for life. Next time you are eating a banana, spare a thought for the generous self-sacrificing red giant turned supernova for the magnesium it contributed! All of the elements needed for living organisms exist, here and now, because of the way the universe is constructed and how it has thus been able to develop.

With all this in mind, for many, we are looking at something which lies beyond the realms of chance; by the constraints of any normal rational process, the universe would seem to have been designed for life. Perhaps this is why it is significantly easier for physicists to believe in a transcendent creator than for molecular biologists.

Others, however, prefer to posit the existence of an infinite number of parallel universes to explain why, in this one at least, we exist. Anything and everything will have occurred in one of these infinite gardens of possibility; who knows, in one of them, Andy Murray may even have beaten Federer at Wimbledon. Of course, no proof can ever exist for these alternative worlds. But likewise, neither will science ever be able to penetrate the all-but infinite heat and pressure of the split-second explosion that brought our universe into being and tell us what lay behind it, creator or otherwise. As Robert Jastrow says:

At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (God and the Astronomers, 2nd edition, p.107.)

This is where we come back to faith and philosophical conviction. Whichever side of the debate we choose to stand on, we are left with the need to choose a “reasonable faith”, a conviction that most resonates with the world as we see it. And again, whichever side of the debate we stand, we will never have ultimate “proof” for our belief. However much evidence points one way or the other, the final word is spoken in faith. For this faith – either in the existence or the non-existence of God – is not in and of itself subject to scientific enquiry.

So please do not make the evolution-creation “icing” into the be-all and end-all, the touch-stone on which all else depends; salvation is by faith, not faith in Jesus and young-earth creationism. There is an astrophysical “cake” that carries, in my mind at least, a whole lot more weight. And remember – no cake, no icing.

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Dawkins, Williams and Pascal’s Wager

24 Feb

Prof. Richard Dawkins & Archbishop Rowan Williams“Flight BA7102 with destination Sydney, Australia, is now ready for departure. We wish to advise all passengers that there is a 1.43% chance that this plane will experience fatal engine failure and crash en route. Please do not be alarmed, as this still gives the flight an acceptable 98.57% probability of arriving safely. We would thus invite our business class passengers, passengers with small children, and other passengers requiring assistance to commence boarding immediately via gate 27…”

Would you board that flight? And if you were the pilot, would you pull away from the jetway with 400 passengers on board? Judging by yesterday’s debate at Oxford University that, apparently, is what Prof. Richard Dawkins is asking us to do — not on an earthly journey but with regard to beliefs that relate to eternity and the existence of God.

Chaired by philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, the debate on “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin” was streamed live and managed to generate a flurry of activity on Twitter as proponents of each side tossed arguments backwards and forwards. It is not very often that the #dawkinsarchbishop hashtag will be seen, much less in the top trending topics. Overall it was a respectful and disciplined affair, albeit a little predictable in its content and general direction of argumentation.

For myself, one of the more interesting themes looked at human “self-reflexive consciousness”. The archbishop’s contention that we are unlike other creatures in that we are able to engage in intellectual reflection on ourselves and our role and purpose in the universe is a powerful one, pointing to the image of God in humanity. Even Prof. Dawkins seemed to be stuck for words — or ideas — at that moment, finally acknowledging that it was indeed “deeply mysterious”.

Whilst not as curious as Prof. Dawkins admitting to having found himself singing a hymn in the shower that morning, what has most caught the public eye is the confession from “the world’s most famous atheist” that he prefers to think of himself as an agnostic. Why? Because he cannot be certain that God does not exist. “I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low,” he said. And just how low is low? I am not sure how he was able to arrive at a figure for this, but he did; apparently he is “6.9 out of 7” certain of his beliefs. In other words, or numbers, 98.57%.

98.57% certain that we are the product of pure chance, that there is no creator, and that we are thus not morally responsible to anyone outside of this world. 98.57% sure that we do not need to worry ourselves with such issues and should simply get on with the job of making the best that we can in this purely material world in which we live. And just a 1.43% chance that the answer to the question “Is there anyone out there?” is, in fact, affirmative.

Now, 98.57% are pretty good odds for most undertakings. With that chance of winning I think that even I might buy tickets for the UK National Lottery — an institution wonderfully described by Lancashire poet Les Barker as “not a prize I don’t win, but a tax I don’t have to pay”. But are these odds you would be prepared to bet your life on? And your eternal future?

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher, might have had something to say about that. When faced with the question of the existence or not of God, impenetrable to human reasoning alone, he proposed his famous wager or gambit:

“‘God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? […]

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées Nº 233, available at Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm).

Richard Dawkins with an "Atheist-Bus"Evidently, it is not quite as simple as that, as if we could generate faith “just in case”. But he has a point. To reject the notion of God even on a 98.57% probability is not the best way to face a potential eternity. Even if God “probably does not exist”, if I were you, Mr. Dawkins, I’d like a higher probability before betting my all and inducing others to do the same.

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