Professor versus Cardinal (#qanda)

Here in Australia last week’s Q&A on ABC television was an Easter Monday special, featuring Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell for a live discussion of faith, science, and morality. The show’s audience was 863,000, its biggest audience since it covered the 2010 federal election.

However, it frustrated me. As Scott Stephens, the ABC’s Online Editor of Religion & Ethics said, “The Q&A panel was comprised of the two most divisive and respectively reviled proponents on either side of the debate”. There was little common ground on the common good. I was sad to hear that our Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen, was unavailable overseas.

Cardinal Pell obviously tried hard to prepare well, and was ready to engage on physics and biology, as well as theology and ethics. But on the science side his answers sounded a little like an undergraduate preparing for exams with a few choice quotes, but not necessarily a deep understanding. Likewise on climate science! Religious leaders ought to be very careful pronouncing on detailed science issues, unless they are genuinely qualified in the area.

Cardinal Pell’s best point here was when he suggested science can tell us how things happen, but nothing about the why. Why was there a Big Bang or a transition from inanimate to living matter? And nothing about ethical problems of life, like “Why be good?” This drew out an honest answer from a Darwinian materialist, when Dawkins said

“Why?” is a silly question. “Why?” is a silly question. You can ask, “What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?” That’s a sensible question. But “What is the purpose of the universe?” is a silly question. It has no meaning.

But Christians welcome the why question. As Cardinal Pell replied, it’s “a very poignant and real question” to ask, “Why is there suffering?” By contrast, in chapter 4 of his book, River out of Eden, Dawkins has said that the universe has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” and that such things as the crashing of a bus are just “meaningless tragedies”. This is honest atheism. It rules questions of purpose out of bounds and ridicules those who ask them, but has little comfort or meaning to offer of its own.

Cardinal Pell is creedally orthodox, and conservative on personal and sexual ethics. However I am very unhappy at having him as a spokesman for biblical Christianity. Because on Q&A, he managed to insult the Jewish people, question the existence of Adam and Eve as merely mythological, forget whether or not God actually inscribed the Ten Commands for Moses (it’s Exodus 24:12, 31:18, George!), stated that atheists can certainly go to heaven, and pushed the unbiblical ideas of purgatory and transubstantiation (that the bread and wine of Holy Communion literally turn into Christ’s body and blood, but don’t taste any different).

Worse still he said nothing defending the historicity of the central Easter event, the resurrection of Jesus, which is, I believe, a strong point for us. And he did not point people to Jesus for salvation. In fact, of the two, it was the atheist Dawkins, who clearly stated the meaning of Christ’s cross in these words, although sadly only to mock it as a “horrible idea”:

…the fundamental idea of New Testament Christianity […] is that Jesus is the Son of God who is redeeming humanity from original sin, the idea that we are born in sin and the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus.

Ironically, as God once spoke through Balaam’s ass, Richard Dawkins spoke the truth there.

22 thoughts on “Professor versus Cardinal (#qanda)

  1. I wonder if anyone else noticed their references to Lawrence M. Krauss’, just published, “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing”. Free Press.
    The Dawkins/Krauss axis may indicate further moves towards subverting ideas on divine genesis of this universe.

      • Thanks for the link (which Cardinal Pell also alluded to). Yes, perhaps there’s a little bit of fancy work going on with the language in Krauss, and certainly with the rhetoric in Dawkins, as I attempt to demonstrate below!

        But you are pithier than me, Martin!

    • Hello Dr Rice, I certainly noticed the reference to the work by Krauss. I have not read his book, unsurprisingly, since it is hot off the press. And I intend to keep to my advice to other religious leaders about not pronouncing on detailed scientific matters about which I am not qualified.

      Can you alert me to how Professor Krauss’ work in this area has fared in peer review so far?

      What I did notice is the weakness of the Q&A forum – where only short and often overly simplistic answers are permitted for complex questions. But Professor Dawkins seemed happy to wade in nevertheless.

      For example, he agreed that

      Of course commonsense doesn’t allow you to get something from nothing. […] Now, it is very mysterious how the universe came into being. It’s a deeply mysterious and interesting question.

      And he said he wasn’t a physicist and

      I’m not qualified to answer the question

      He then said

      What scientists are trying to do is to explain how you can get not just something but the immense complexity of the world, of the universe and of life, and science is making a pretty good fist of doing that.

      He then said – referring I believe to the development of biological life, not the origin of life itself, or at least not of the universe itself – that

      Life is now completely solved barring the details. That was Darwin’s contribution and Darwin’s successors.

      I wonder if anyone else sees something internally contradictory in that statement. How can something be completely solved, if there are still details missing and uncertain? Bold rhetoric trumps epistemic humility, there I think.

      Dawkins then admitted

      Physicists are still working on the origin of the cosmos.

      Here is where he notes Prof Krauss work. In brief, it seems the theory (or is it still an hypothesis, Dr Rice?) is that since

      When you have matter and antimatter and you put them together, they cancel each other out and give rise to nothing. What Lawrence Krauss is now suggesting is that if you start with nothing the process can go into reverse and produce matter and antimatter.

      I wonder if readers more educated than I would care to comment on my suggestion that just because the process may work in one direction certainly does not mean it works in the other direction, from nothing at all. This conclusion certainly cannot be assumed, and should be demonstrated by evidence or argument.

      Regarding the arguments, Dawkins then admits that

      The theory is still being worked out. It is a very difficult theory, mathematical theory.

      In that case, if it is not all sorted out, is it not wise to be very cautious about making sweeping claims on the basis of such theorising?

      But in fact, Dawkins once again moves beyond epistemic humility by introducing this whole section with a bold statement,

      Well, something can come from nothing and that is what physicists are now telling us.

      He admits that the details of what he calls a very complex theory, addressing a deeply difficult and mysterious question are still being worked out by the physicists, but nevertheless asserts something can come from nothing, as if it’s a fact now proven by physicists.

      Blind Freddy can see the leaps in logic and process there, from possibilities to certainty. (My comments are directed to Prof Dawkins rhetoric on Q&A, not to Prof Krauss book, of course, since I have not read it.)

      Of course, the reason Dawkins grabs onto this yet-to-be-proven theory is because he recognises the difficulty for atheists in saying something has come from nothing. And what he wants to assert is this:

      what I am sure about is that it most certainly is not solved by postulating an intelligence, a creative intelligence, who raises even bigger questions of his own existence. That certainly is not going to be the answer, whatever else is.

      But the only reason he provides for this statement is his earlier assertion that

      Something pretty mysterious had to give rise to the origin of the universe. Now, if you want to replace a physical explanation by an intelligent God, that’s an even worse explanation. It’s even a more difficult explanation.

      He appears to be invoking Occam’s razor that the simpler explanation should be preferred to a more complex one (unless, perhaps, the more complex one has greater explanatory power).

      But he is working by assertion here that postulating God as the first cause is self-evidently a more complex explanation than a a physical explanation he has already admitted is mysterious and very complex and mathematically difficult!

      QED then!

      [All quotes taken from the official transcript of the relevant episode of Q&A.]

      • As I understand it, quantum mech does allow for matter/antimatter to spontaneously appear, but this is still not something from nothing, because in such theories the stuff has come from the potentialities of space itself. And even if you then start to argue about vibrating strings or branes, you’re just pushing the problem elsewhere. Quantum mech might suggest that waves can appear in an ocean without any apparent cause, but that still leaves the problem of what the ocean is doing there in the first place. Science cannot answer why the universe exists at all, and it never will be able to because science depends on it existing.

      • Dawkins is wrong in his comments about matter and antimatter because while they do annihilate one another, they do not leave you with nothing. Instead, you get lots of energy which means other stuff (various other particles) and certainly not nothing.
        My limited understanding is that Krauss argues for something rather different. The idea of “something from nothing” arises first out of Heisenberg’s equation about quantum uncertainty which is colloquially described as placing a limit on how precisely we can make measurements but in quantum physics doesn’t reflect a limit on measurability but a real physical property (you probably know this hence your cleverly veiled reference to “QED” = “Quantum Electro-Dynamics” at the end of your comment). Flowing out of this is the possibility that particle–anti-particle pairs can spontaneously appear and disappear without contravening any laws of physics. While these are called “virtual” particles, physicists claim that they are real and that their existence is reflected in a couple of observable ways (one is that they are designated as intermediaries for forces acting at a distance, so that electro-magnetism is mediated by virtual photons, gravity by virtual gravitons [presumably] and these are known as “exchange” particles; the other is Hawking’s claim that black holes can “evaporate” through the capture of one of the pair of particles which arise near their event horizon — although that hasn’t really been observed yet).
        This itself obviously cannot explain an entire universe appearing from nothing because that clearly cannot be made to fit within Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. According to Krauss, however, there are models in which a universe can appear, but again, it isn’t from “nothing” in any pure sense of the word, but from a “multiverse” which is itself eternal (Krauss, in a debate with William Lane Craig, stated that where Craig believes in God, that place was occupied by the multiverse for him). At this point, however, I think Krauss falls into the same problem he accuses theists of having, because I’m not sure that the idea of a multiverse (or a number of other aspects of this whole theory) are either readily testable or falsifiable. That is, the reasons he rejects theism as an explanation for the origin of the universe applies equally to the alternative he proposes.
        As I say, I’m not sure about this aspect of the multiverse idea, but so far I haven’t seen anything to convince me that I’m mistaken on this.

        • No Martin, re. QED, I’m not that well read in this area, and apparently spoke deeper than I realised! As a friend from church emailed to me…

          QED in physics refers to Quantum Electrodynamics which is mysterious, complex and mathematically difficult, and as Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and co-winner of the Nobel Prize for QED in 1965 said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”

          I was just using the old Latin, quod erat demonstrandum (“which was to be demonstrated”) as the abbreviation to indicate at the end of a proof that you had properly demonstrated what you had set out to prove. Clearly in regards to Dawkins, it was ironic in regards to his rhetorical confidence without clear demonstration.

          I think Jenny Morris was in a band called QED too… Oh, it’s Friday afternoon!

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  3. One other thing, in reading and thinking after Q&A, I realise that I should attribute my comment that Cardinal Pell looked well prepared, or perhaps rehearsed with a few good quotes, as being inspired by a similar comment I read from David McDonald, and his thoughtful blog soon after the show, on the same topic. His Macarisms blog is worth a look – cancer, and Christian leadership, and book reviews, etc. Thank Dave, and praying for you.

  4. Two updates:

    (i) Cardinal Pell apologised for his poor choice of words in suggesting the Jewish people were intellectually inferior to other ancient cultures. (While many Jewish people were offended, it is also fair to note that some said he had been a good friend to the Jewish community, much as his remarks were dreadfully careless and insensitive.)

    (ii) The atheists are clearer on Christian theology than Cardinal Pell in his statement – repeated when checked by the Moderator, Tony Jones – that atheists could “certainly” go to heaven. In the Sydney Morning Herald today, acerbic critic of Christianity, Mike Carlton, expressed his astonishment at Pell’s statement, such that he double-checked the transcript. Quote

    Thus, with one small word but one grand gesture, Gorgeous George swept away not just the brilliant edifice of 2000 years not just of Catholic teaching, but of Christianity itself. You don’t have to believe in God to make it past St Peter and in through the pearly gates. […] You just have to be good.
    I’m not sure he’s right though. Reluctant as I am to quote scripture to a prince of the church, this would seem to fly in the face of John 14:6: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.”
    Christened as a Catholic, educated an Anglican, I was always taught this meant that only faith in Christ go you to heaven.

    Well yes. But how sad that, though rejecting them, the atheists seem to understand the Bible better than the Cardinal.

  5. I thought the one that was let through to the keeper was Dawkin’s assertion (several times) that whilst he believes that Darwinian evolution (survival of the fittest) got us to where we are, he would certainly not want to live in a society ruled by those principles. This seems to say that Dawkins wants to halt human evolution at its current state. A consistent evolutionist would surely accept that a Darwinian oriented society is essential to further development of the human species.
    It seems that Prof Dawkins is caught in the same web Christians often find themselves in. To state a consistent position would fly in the face of politically correct public opinion, so he has sacrificed consistency in order to make his position more appealing to the general public. A ‘survival of the fittest’ society sounds awful because it is – just look at some of the African and Middle Eastern states.
    In some ways this is one of the starkest contrasts between atheistic evolutionism and Christianity. Christians view our fellow humans as made in God’s image, and so deserving of respect. A consistent evolutionist must see great segments of humanity as inferior; hopefully to be weeded out in the next iteration.

    • You are confusing the descriptive with the normative, Ian. Because someone holds that a there is a certain causal basis to evolution, or for that matter if they affirm any other factual proposition, it does not commit them to the view that an analogous principle should be taken as a valid moral precept. To insist that it does, is to commit a form of the naturalistic fallacy.

      Dawkins stated in the debate that he does not believe that principles of biological evolution provide the basis for a normative view, and contrary to what you suggest, any factual claims he may make about evolution do not commit him to any particular normative view. He clearly does not, nor ‘should’ he accept as normative that “a Darwinian oriented society is essential to further development of the human species” or that he “must see great segments of humanity as inferior”.

      • Brian, you may be fair enough there. Just because something ‘is’ does not automatically imply an ethical ‘ought’.

        Perhaps it is also fair to say that it is very hard for atheists to secure any basis for ‘ought’ outside of subjective human judgment. What do you think?

        And may I ask what you thought of Prof Dawkins statements, about where the universe itself came from – which I outlined and critiqued above?

        • Sandy,
          Atheists certainly have recourse to mind-independent conceptions of ethics. Most contemporary moral philosophers are moral realists.

          As to cosmology, I’ll leave the explanation to the physicists. But a priori I don’t see a necessity to posit nothingness prior to the beginning of the universe.

          • Brian, been away for 48 hours, so please excuse the slow reply.

            Perhaps you could share what you consider to be the best atheistic, mind-independent conception of ethics.

            In regards to cosmology, and leaving it to the physicists, with respect, you seem to have avoided my question. That is, unbless it was a very subtle shot of Dawkins – as a biologist – for not doing so. Just to be clear, I was asking about your opinion on Dawkins’ rhetoric, and whether the strength of some of his statements were justified, even by some of his other statements!

  6. Sandy,
    I wasn’t having a shot at Dawkins. I really don’t feel I have sufficient knowledge to comment on the physics; neither am I familiar with Dawkins’ views on cosmology, which might help explain what he meant.

    If I was to hazard a guess from the comments you quote, and presuming he was referring to evolution in the third quoted paragraph, then I imagine his point is that Krauss offers a plausible physical hypothesis of how something can come from nothing and that this is to be preferred to a non-physical hypothesis as the latter involves mechanisms currently (and perhaps by their nature) opaque to science. That sounds like a coherent position from a scientific point of view.

    I’m not sure that I would want to pronounce on the ‘best’ mind-independent theory of ethics; they all have their strengths and weaknesses. In any case, I’m not sure my view should count for a whole lot. You might be best to consult the literature for yourself. I can recommend reading if you want.

    For what it’s worth, in metaethics I find constructivism quite persuasive – a la Tom Scanlon or Rawls – but don’t deny the force of some naturalist theses. I have sympathy with R. M. Hare and Peter Singer’s universal prescriptivism as a very elegant theory of both metaethics and normative ethics. Of the normative theories, I think hedonic and preference consequentialism are, on the whole, the most convincing.

    • There’s a paper on the multiverse idea (to which Krauss appeals to explain the universe from “nothing” idea) here at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. It underlines some of the problems with this theory which seem to make it no more scientific than proposing God as the necessary cause of the universe.

    • Brian, thanks for commenting. I am a bit rusty these days, but I do recall thinking that if I had to construct a theory of ethics without God then preference (or hedonistic) utilitarianism seemed like a plausible approach. However, looking at where it leads, I have concerns, and I guess that springs from the fact that people have such widely divergent views (preferences!) re. what qualifies as utility or pleasurable. And I am not totally persuaded preference utilitarianism secures what we would call genuinely universal morals. But I admit I am rusty.

      On Dawkins, if you have not read the transcript, fair enough, but let’s be honest, I find it hard to believe he states his conclusions so boldly at the same times as admitting (i) he is a biologist and not a physicist and therefore not competent to pronounce, and (ii) that there are plenty of details yet to be worked out, and (iii) that the theory is incredibly complex. Others have added in that there is considerable philosophical contest to be factored in as to the theory’s significance, even if something like it turns out to be possible.

      Christians who display a lack of epistemic humility get howled down when we over-reach our competence on a matter, but Dawkins gets a free pass. Come on!

      • Sandy, John Stuart Mill famously thought God was a Utilitarian, what do you think?

  7. I was fascinated at Dawkins’ surprise that Pell held to a physical resurrection (about 45 minutes into the program). It’s a shame that the concept of a ‘bodily resurrection’ was conflated at that point with the theory of transubstantiation of a wafer into the body of Jesus.

    If an evangelical were in the discussion, they wouldn’t have felt the need to defend transubstantiation and could have turned the discussion to the evidence we have for a bodily resurrection: the resurrection of Jesus.

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