Last Monday I went to a round table discussion put on by the Griffith Christian Students in which Dr. Greg Clarke, of the Centre for Public Christianity, described and defended his views on science and faith. He also put on a lecture in the afternoon which I was unable to attend (though I’m always one for two-way dialogue!). I went for a couple of reasons; one, I can’t resist a good debate, two, it is a subject I feel is important, and three, if I’m planning on communicating science in the future I’d best be able to put forward my views in a clear way!
The discussion started with Greg listing a range of talking points (probably too many for an hour) which included scientific ideas that he felt pointed to the presence of a Creator, and a number of other ideas. The discussion focussed around several of his first points, including the first cause argument and the argument from fine tuning. These are difficult arguments to grapple with, especially in a short space of time.
The point that really stuck with me was Greg’s use of Occam’s Razor (in short, if multiple explanations exist for a phenomenon, use the simplest or one which requires the least assumptions) in defense of his argument that God was the first cause in the universe. He suggested that the need for some kind of first cause to trigger the singularity, or otherwise form ‘nothing from nothing’, as he put it, could be explained most simply by a creator. I didn’t get the chance to press him at that point in the discussion, but wish I’d gone back to it – I think I ended up arguing against fine tuning instead, which is more involved! Chvd, another skeptic, raised Dawkins’ Ultimate 747 argument as a refutation of the viability of the first cause, to which Greg responded that the creator was not of the same stuff as the universe. He rightly pointed out that the first cause argument says nothing about whether the creative force is the God of the bible or any other religion.
However, later in the discussion, I tried to press Greg on what he felt his personal version of God was capable of. If I understood correctly, he believed that God is responsible for the universe being rational, orderly and ‘intelligent’. Further, his God is capable of manipulating the stuff of the universe, but generally does so in ways which are in accord with the natural laws; subtle interventions only, such as the feeding of the masses. That’s about as deep as we managed to get, but I didn’t get the feeling that he was in very comfortable territory. I also had the feeling that, if pressed, most of the Christians in the room would have had either wildly or subtly different perceptions of what God is and can do.
At that stage, I’d have liked to be quick enough on my feet (mind?) to relate back that concept of God to the first causes argument. We’ve moved from a nonspecified creative force (which may in fact be a phenomenon we can describe and understand), to a much more specific and complicated entity. Here is the way I understand that particular concept of Christianity:
1. An entity, existing eternally and without cause, of an unknown substance like nothing we have or can experience, triggered the singularity.
2. After billions of years, around one star in the entire universe, a planet forms. We know it as Earth. God’s guidance in this matter is uncertain, but subtle tweaks to ensure it would happen may have been appropriate.
3. Three and a half billion years after life as we know it arose, one species out of millions differentiated itself from others by gaining the capacity to plan, build, communicate fluently, and importantly, build stories of history and explanations for the world (it is possible that these characteristics are not unique, but the combination appears to be). I highly recommend you look at the left hand side of this timeline to get a vague handle on the timing involved here.
4. God, having waited (outside of time and space), decided to make subtle interventions in the lives of several populations of these creatures in the Middle East. One of these interventions was the miraculous conception of God’s progeny, Jesus, who, along with many other prophets and preachers of the time, led an interesting life. Parts of his life involved miracles which were compelling to those present but did not upset the order and rationality inherent in the universe, such as transforming foodstuffs. The story and teachings of his life were of enough interest that it was documented in the following years, and an identity cult formed surrounding him and his ideas. Meanwhile, other belief systems were rising and falling across the world.
5. The following of Jesus came to dominate what we know now as Western civilisation, though miraculous interventions by God in the 2000 year interim period have been minor and/or poorly substantiated.
What I see is a concept of God which has been pushed so far from the material (and only observed) reality we inhabit that it is defined by its apologists as outside reality, with the attached ability to enact its whims in generally undetectable ways through inexplicable mechanisms.
I can already hear cries of “that’s not my God!” from the (probably few) Christan readers of this, and I must ask: have you ever carefully considered exactly what you believe from the standpoint of an outsider? How closely does it follow the above points? Do you have a consistent concept of what God is, what it can do, and how it operates? If so, I would really, genuinely love to hear your side of this – without such explanation, I see an extravagant story which is relentlessly anthropocentric, unvalidated and increasingly claimed as untouchable by scientific means by its defenders.
I can’t help but invoke Occam’s razor and wonder why so many people in Western democracies turn to religion to inform their choices (or perhaps justify their existing beliefs). I believe everyone has the right to think what they like but it frustrates me to see so many people unwilling to really get to grips with why they believe what they do.