Michael Guillen, who obtained degrees in physics and mathematics from Cornell University, where he studied under Carl Sagan and Fred Hoyle, and who taught physics at Harvard University, has a podcast in which he addresses the problem of the origin of life (among many other things). (See Science + God with Dr. G. Episode #44)
Guillen was an atheist into his late 20’s or early 30’s. Then he became a theist, and then a Christian. He has always been a “science guy”, however.
You can find the explanation of how he gravitated from atheism to Christianity in earlier episodes of the podcast. I am not going to address it here. I want to address the origin of life problem using this particular episode as a backdrop because I think he explains the problem well.
Before I do that, I want to preface the origin of life problem and put it in some context. The unspoken and unexamined assumptions we make can cloud our understanding, so I want to seek a little clarity first.
In this particular conversation, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and well-known scientist who professes religious faith, just finished explaining briefly why he came to believe in God at the age of 27. Richard Dawkins, the very well-known scientist and “new atheist”, responded this way:
“If I were God and I wanted to create life, maybe even human life, which is part of the expectation of a religious person, I think I would not use such a wasteful, long-drawn-out process. I think I would just go for it. Why would you choose natural selection, which has the possibly unfortunate property that it could have come about without you? Why would God have chosen a mechanism to unfold His design and chose the very mechanism that would make Him superfluous?
Dawkins speculated that God might have thought, “I wonder what would happen if I set up a primeval, self-replicating molecule and leave it to see what happens.” Dawkins called such an experiment “interesting” and sympathized with the thought of God experimenting in that way. Then he added, “If I wanted to make complex life, I wouldn’t choose that astonishingly wasteful, profligate – cruel actually – way of doing it.”
Dawkins focused on the suffering that comes from competition and evading starvation. He focused on the weeding out process of some animals starving to death, being eaten by predators and succumbing to disease. Dawkins summarized, “It is not a benign process at all.”
Dawkins admitted that this line of thinking is “not a good argument”, but it is what “struck” him as Francis Collins was talking. Indeed, I have heard Richard Dawkins say similar things in debate and in his writings. This line of thinking is obviously compelling to him, good argument or not.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Dawkins. I am not here to blast him or judge him. We all have a judge, I believe, and it isn’t me!
Dawkins is not an ignorant man, obviously. He is a foremost scientist who is a very poignant and elegant communicator and champion of the evolutionary paradigm. His many books and body of work speak to his exceptional intelligence. As people go, he is at the top of the food chain in scientific knowledge and understanding.
Francis Collins is good company for Dawkins, having advanced the relatively new science and understanding of human DNA, perhaps, further than any person before him. Yet, these two men have diametrically opposed views of whether God exists. Neither of them is an intellectual slouch.
I am writing, though, on what Richard Dawkins said. Just as Dawkins was “struck” by what Collins said to respond in the way he did, I am struck to respond by what Dawkins said.
His instinct or intuition or line of thought – whatever you want to call it – was to consider, “If I were God….” Dawkins gravitated toward comparing what he would do if he were God and the world as it exists. Dawkins’s point is, ultimately, that he finds the world as it exists not to live up to what he would have created if he were God.
On the show and podcast, Unbelievable! On Christian Premiere Radio in the UK hosted by Justin Brierley, the host often asks people, atheists and Christians, what would make them believe (or not believe, as the case may be). Most people think of arguments or historical or scientific proofs, but not everyone.
In one particular episode Michael Ruse, a professor and philosopher of biology at Florida State Universality, participated in discussion with John Lennox, a professor of mathematics and philosophy at Oxford, on the subject of Science, Faith and the Evidence for God. When asked the question about what would make him believe, Michael Ruse surprisingly (for me at least) said that it would have to be a personal experience with God.
Michael Ruse is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ruse is an evolutionary biologist who has debated against intelligent design proponents. He has been on the Advisory Council to the National Center for Scientific Education. He is a Bertrand Russell Society award winner for his dedication to science and reason.
Thus, my surprise to hear him provide such an “unscientific” answer to the question of what it would take for him to become a believer. I have since heard other atheists provide similar answers. Intelligent Christians, I think, underestimate the power of personal experience.
To be fair of Michael Ruse, though is a decided atheist, he has a healthy respect for theology. Maybe that is because he is a philosopher, and not just a scientist.
I say “just a scientist” because there is a school of thought among modern scientists that we don’t need philosophy anymore, that science is all we need. (People like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson have expressed this view.)
But science, by definition, is limited to the study of the natural world, matter and energy (or “molecules in motion” as some like to say). Anyone who makes the claim that science is all we need has made an a priori determination (an initial presupposition) that molecules in motion are the sum of all reality. Neither theology, nor philosophy, fit into a world like that. And, where, then, does that leave mathematics and logic?
Michael Ruse, being an expert in philosophy takes great offense at the notion that philosophy has gone the way of God and is dead (alluding to Nietzsche’s great contention). It’s natural for a philosopher to take that position, I suppose, even an atheist philosopher. After all, he has devoted his life to philosophy!
But then, consider that he knows something of what he talks about. Just as scientists know a great deal more about science than me, a philosopher knows a great deal more about philosophy than, well… a scientist (who studies only molecules in motion). It isn’t hard to understand why such a person might begin to see the world as nothing but molecules in motion when that is the constant and continual focus of life long study, but the theologians and philosophers, even atheistic one, protest there is more.
Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist turned Christian minister and apologist, was interviewed on Justin Brierley’s podcast, Unbelievable!, with Peter Atkins, the famous Oxford professor of chemistry and avowed atheist. If you haven’t listened to Justin Brierley’s podcasts, I heartily recommend them. He handles very difficult subjects with people on opposite ends of the spectrum in a very gentlemanly, informed and thoughtful way.
The Hugh Ross/Peter Atkins interview (debate) was no exception, though Peter Atkins was a bit less civil in his discourse than Hugh Ross and the host. Brierley, who seems unflappable, didn’t miss a beat, but I was particularly impressed by the kind patience of Hugh Ross, though disappointed that he was often interrupted and not allowed to finish what he was saying.
I recently read a post interview statement from Hugh Ross that puts things in perspective. It provides some background and insight into the interview and the reason, perhaps, of the hostility evident in Peter Atkins demeanor. But first, let’s consider the position that Peter Atkins takes before we consider why he was so hostile.
Peter Atkins takes the position, that Richard Dawkins also takes, that people largely believe what they are conditioned to believe. People’s religious beliefs, therefore, are dictated by where they grew up, the culture and tradition to which they are exposed and other conditions that have nothing to do with the truth of the particular religious or philosophical proposition. Belief, according to them, is entirely an accident of external circumstances and conditions.
Both Atkins and Dawkins claim to base their worldviews entirely on the scientific evidence and on the scientific evidence alone. Both claim that Christians believe what they want to believe, ignoring the actual evidence or in spite of the actual evidence (“in the teeth of the evidence” as Dawkins puts it). If we know a little bit about their own stories, though, we see an immediate disconnect. And, if we think about the story of Hugh Ross, and others, that disconnect gets even more pronounced.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Tim Keller lately. Today I listened to an old interview in which he said something that got me thinking. He asserted that, for many or most people, whether they are religious or secular often depends on their social influences. I suppose this would mean parents and family as well as peers. Richard Dawkins, the famously vocal atheist has said similar things: what religion we are depends to a large extent on the society in which we grew up.
Keller supported his thesis with anecdotal evidence from his own experience. He says, for him, he was religious initially because he wanted to gain the favor of people closes to him. What does that say about the power of social interactions? What does it say about our beliefs? If Richard Dawkins and Keller are right, how authentic are anyone’s beliefs?