Re-invention (or: Words from the street)

I recently saw Jon Richardson live, trying not to overly ponder on why, for her birthday, I had bought my girlfriend a ticket to be entertained by a younger, funnier, better-looking man than I. In a fluid, meandering, continuous stream of skits, he perhaps amused me most when he connected in the way the best comedians often do, with a riff on the absurdity of reaction to words emanating from public figures.

This centred on the tweets of Premier League footballer Joey Barton, an excellent player and an occasionally refreshing change from the robotic, cliché-regurgitating football interviewee. However, Barton is, by many accounts, an unsavoury character. Nevertheless, despite his retina-detaching prickliness, he seems to some extent to have restored his reputation in the eyes of a fickle public, on account of his propensity to quote the occasional profound lyric, or the odd philosopher. Wow! How impressive is that? Must be a cerebral type, invocating that kind of stuff. Not such a bad lad, then. (Well, as a street philosopher he does make the occasional fair point.)

Never mind that philosophy is often baloney – particularly when used out of context. A lot of turgid prose that doesn’t resolve much. Yet how we all coo when a few gems are pretentiously plucked from the intellectual ether.

I also recently caught one of the series of BBC Radio 4’s Lent Talks, delivered by John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Lennox is also Adjunct Professor of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. Deriving from the Greek apologia, meaning ‘reasoned defence’, apologetics is that branch of theology concerned with the defence and proof of Christianity, which should tell you straight away why Lennox is a contributor to this pre-Easter series. I’m not familiar with Lennox’s work, though his credentials are obvious; and from what I’ve seen and listened to, he comes over as an impressive and affable scholar, and a fine orator. But, after repeated listen to his talk, I am still screwing my “What the bloody hell are you going on about?” face up.

Professor Lennox endeavours to describe how (for him – isn’t that always the way?) ‘… God is encountered through science.’ He peppers with quotes from (religious) scientists and philosophers ad nauseam, in validation of his ‘reasoned defence’. I won’t repeat them here; instead, I’ll just give you a flavour of what he says. After an introduction extolling the virtues of science, he quickly, via a few choice citations, takes a swipe at “secular thinkers”…

“… many scientists have adopted that naturalistic view, seemingly unaware that it undermines the very rationality upon which their scientific research depends.”

This is confusing, but seems to be an argument for considering the undisprovable metaphysic as scientifically rational, with a swipe at scientists who do not. But isn’t it at the naturalistic, physical level that scientists operate (when they’re doing science)? Otherwise, they’re going to be prone to making unscientific pronouncements – as Lennox does here. Copiously.

“It is therefore no accident that Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Clerk Maxwell were believers in God.”

Well, no. If you believe you are researching God’s handiwork, then it is God’s handiwork you will see – whatever or wherever it is; and especially if it can be represented in an ordered abstraction, thus ‘signifying’ causal agency. (Interesting how Clerk Maxwell is included in that sequence: quite right to acknowledge his scientific greatness, even though he was a contemporary of Darwin, who doesn’t get a mention – because he was a biologist, and not a mathematical astronomer/physicist; or because he doesn’t fit the godly list?)

“This monotheistic view seems to [Calvin] to be the historical foundation for modern science. Far from belief in God hindering science, it was the motor that drove it.”

Yes, indeed. But the indisputability of the faith of those who pioneered the mathematical explanation of the universe does not constitute retrospective evidence for ‘God’, or any deity. But Lennox doesn’t see that… and apparently pities those of us who do:

“Newton could see what sadly many people nowadays seem unable to see – that God and science are not alternative explanations. God is the agent who designed and upholds the universe. Science tells us about how the universe works and about the laws that govern its behaviour… The existence of mechanisms and laws is not an argument for the non-existence of an agent who set those laws and mechanisms in place. On the contrary, their very sophistication down to the fine-tuning of the universe is evidence for the creator’s genius.”

Neither is it an argument for the existence of an agent, and suggests misappropriation of ‘laws’, which do not make scientifically evident any deity (unless you believe they do).

This is the line of ‘reasoning’ which holds that all you scientists are, wittingly or unwittingly (or dim-wittingly), investigating not merely the natural world, but God’s plan. This language, which hints at intelligent design and certainly smacks of anthropic principle, is faith talking; scientifically, it is ungrounded syncretism.

But then, he seems to pull his own rug from under himself:

“Furthermore, there are things that do not fit in to science. For, and it needs to be said in the face of widespread popular opinion to the contrary, science is not the only way to truth. Indeed, the very success of science is due to the narrowness of the range of its questions and methodology.”

Goodness, how many turns in this Gordian knot?! Previously, science was being endorsed as a way to truth (ie, philosophical ‘truth’; nevermind this “widespread popular opinion” that it is the only way – really?); now, following the glorification of its triumphant revealing of the workings of God’s universe, it is deemed, in its acknowledged concern with natural reality, insufficient, even somewhat pathetic. So, God and science are alternative explanations, then? Or is science just one syncretic wedge in the great God-pie?

From around mid-way, Lennox goes on to liken the maverick-ness of Jesus with that of great (religious) scientists; and I’m afraid I lose interest in what turns into a reaching sermon (including an endorsement of miracles; well, it is Easter). I could go on, but I won’t. (Listen to the talk, if still available; sorry I didn’t get this up sooner, but I’ve had visitors). I continue to be bewildered by the lengths some go to in order to convince themselves (or others) of (the ‘rationality’ of) their beliefs. And in doing so, it gets labelled as ‘philosophy’. Or ( cough ) theology. That Radio 4 broadcasts a series of religious-themed talks during Lent understandably caters to an audience that wants to listen to them. I can, of course, choose not to. And I’ve no argument against a religious scientist presenting such a talk. If, that is, they stick to religion. But when science is mentioned, my ears may be pricked, particularly if he/she conflates science and religion. Appealing to the faith of great scientists does not a scientific argument make. Quite right to point out Newton’s brilliant genius as a scientist/mathematician. Worth considering also that (to quote E.A. Burtt) ‘… as a philosopher he was uncritical, sketchy, inconsistent, even second-rate.’ (Hey, did you see what I did there?!)

Me – I am just a run-of-the-mill, career-less scientist, and a (former) middling, mercurial amateur footballer. I’ve acquired little in the way of fame or infamy in either exploit. So, were I to pepper these pages with a drolly placed Descartes (’I’m pink, therefore I’m spam’), or a wittily inserted Wittgenstein (err, can’t), it will hardly be likely to draw admiring gasps, or approving nods of faux sagacity. But if I was a notorious pseudo-intellectual Premier League star, or a serious intellectual scholar, then people might take it as read that such literary garnish conveys significance and profundity. But it doesn’t, necessarily. Rather, it is often over-complicating, and potentially highly misleading. And (as I know many religious scientists would acknowledge) selling listeners ‘intelligent design’-style pseudoscientism is the laziest philosophy – a cardinal sin for any scientist.


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