SOL #1.5 Evidence (end of chapter one)

This appeal to evidence, however, is not as strong as we normally think it is. For in examining these debates, the key is clearly how ‘evidence’ is interpreted. Evidence in and of itself – that is, the different observations and measurements collected by scientists in their daily work – is not unambiguous.

A good historical demonstration of this ambiguity is the parallel investigations carried out by Priestley and Lavoisier at the end of the nineteenth century. The experiments that each scientist made were broadly the same, as were the factual results. However, Priestley took the evidence as confirming the existence of phlogiston, whereas for Lavoisier the evidence was taken as confirming the existence of oxygen. Each scientist operated within a different overall pattern of understanding, and that governed their interpretation of the relevant data.

This is not a particularly controversial point. Indeed, it is now commonly accepted – the current expression is that ‘there are no uninterpreted facts’. There is a tension between experimental data and the governing interpretation used to understand that data, and the two are engaged in a continual iterative dance of cross-fertilisation, interpretation and translation. It is not simply that a particular governing understanding is the best explanation of the available evidence, nor that singular facts govern the nature of the understanding employed. Instead there is a dialectical process of interpretation, where one side continuously informs and is informed by the other.


The debate between the different schools in evolutionary biology – those associated with Dawkins, and those associated with Stephen Jay Gould – has become notorious for its ill-temper, often played out on the pages of the New York Review of Books. Yet clearly there is much on which the two different schools of thought agree on: the acceptance of a Darwinian account of evolution, including natural selection, variation and differential reproductive success. Unlike the creation scientists both sides accept that the earth has existed for billions of years, that there never has been nor ever will be any ‘special creation’ of species outside of their development in evolutionary terms, and also that the progress of science genuinely improves our knowledge of the world.

Yet just as clearly each side thinks that something very important is at stake – that the other side has got something seriously wrong. Which serves as a clue that perhaps the main difference between them lies in different answers to the serious questions – that, in fact, the principal disagreements between them lie in different overarching frameworks of understanding. From the atheistic Dawkins, via the humanistic Gould, through to the conservative Christian creation scientists – clearly there is a wide variety of opinion on the serious questions.


Consider the various transitions in the history of physics – from the Ptolemaic, geocentric view of the world, to the Newtonian system, through to the modern understanding derived from Einstein and quantum physics. In each case the dominant understanding had certain other beliefs ‘built in’.

Ptolemy assumed that the earth was the centre of the cosmos; that things had a particular nature (earth, air, fire, water) and that those things tended to their ‘natural’ place – with the earth at the centre, which explained why things fell down to earth – and heaven beyond the stars. Humans were given the central role in a cosmic drama. Hell was beneath our feet, and very hot; heaven was above the sky, and was ethereal.

In contrast to this, Newton described the world as a mechanism, rather like a clock; it was a machine that had been set in motion by a divine creator, but that since that first impetus the clock had proceeded according to certain discernible laws – of motion, gravity and the like. That machine operated within a framework of absolute space and time. In the Newtonian system, we are essentially machines, composed of various parts interweaving mechanically in a closed system that would inevitably run down.

After Einstein, this ‘clockwork’ model has been rejected, along with the idea of ‘absolute’ space and time. Time speeds up or slows down according to where you are in relation to what you want to measure. The only constant is the speed of light. In this contemporary understanding, our view of physical reality cannot be divorced from how we look at it – if we look for one thing, then we cannot find another. We are still working through the implications of that development.

A natural question might be: will there be another Einstein to come along in a few hundred years to provide another understanding, a different constant?


What I would like to emphasize isn’t simply that science has a revolutionary history, although that is something that needs always to be borne in mind, but that what drives the debate – what underlies the differences between the different accounts – is something deeper than questions of evidence or rationality. These questions of evidence and rationality are conventional scientific questions – what the ancient Greeks called ‘physics’. What lies behind them is something called ‘metaphysics’ – from the word ‘meta-‘, meaning ‘after’ or ‘above’. Metaphysics, then, is how we can start to describe the domain of our serious questions. In each case there have been claims made that ‘this is how things are’ – with consequent metaphysical implications also claimed.

So when Richard Dawkins writes that ‘…our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but… it is a mystery no longer because it is solved’ he is not simply describing a scientific conclusion, he is also advocating a particular metaphysical stance, a particular view of what science is and what it can provide. That metaphysical stance can be described and underpins the difference between the two schools of thought in evolutionary biology. For Dawkins is a staunch believer in the ability of science to provide for human progress, whereas Gould sees the relationship between science and society as a much more complex system.

Interestingly, that brief glance at the Newtonian model throws up an interesting parallel, for Dawkins also sees the universe as essentially a clockwork mechanism. Ironically he has a much deeper agreement with Paley – the person who originally conceived of the ‘watchmaker’ argument for the existence of God – than he seems ready to contemplate, for whilst Dawkins tweaks the model to provide his ‘blind’ watchmaker, the idea that the universe is best understood as a watch (ie as a Newtonian system; DNA succession tumbling down the generations like the mechanisms driven by a watchspring) is common to both. Dawkins’ account of evolution is thoroughly Newtonian in its metaphysical assumptions.


Yet the question remains: is Dawkins correct? If we cannot reach a final conclusion based on logic or purely evidential considerations, can we yet determine an answer to that question, either positively or negatively?

In other words, just how it is that we choose between different understandings?

SOL #1.4: Logic

Humans are rational animals, that is, we are creatures that can apply a mental faculty to the understanding of events and actions. This has its roots in the very biological need to perceive the necessary consequences of certain actions: IF I put my hand in the fire, THEN I will be burnt. IF I go to the waterhole at dusk, THEN I might be able to kill one of the animals drinking there, AND I might gain some food. This faculty, this capacity to reason, is indeed a marvellous attribute.

In the paragraph above, I capitalised certain words: IF, THEN, AND. Computer programmers might recognise them as logical commands – in other words, they are commands which a computer can execute. The computer knows what to do when a program includes such terms – that is how it has been set up and programmed – and the computer will happily pursue such commands for as long as the person doing the programming wishes it to. When I was younger I learnt how to program computers using the language BASIC, which included terms like these. One of the most important elements in the programming was the IF…THEN command. This allowed the computer to make ‘choices’ according to certain established criteria. Perhaps the program wanted to ask the observer to press a certain key to indicate ‘yes’ and another key to indicate ‘no’ as an answer to the question that the computer was asking. The programmer could then write IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do one thing, but IF (keypress = ‘N’) THEN do another thing. Of course, my language there was a little inaccurate – the computer is not making a real choice – it is simply following the predetermined path laid down by the programmer. The programmer wanted to give the user of a program a choice at this point, and has instructed the computer to react to that choice in the appropriate way.

What I would like to bring out from this example is the way that reason follows a set pattern – we even have the phrase ‘a chain of reasoning’ to talk about such patterns – and a computer program is a very clear example of the pattern in which reasoning functions. This pattern which reason follows has its own name: logic, and reason and logic are essentially linked. Logic is the study of these patterns or chains of reasoning, and the usefulness of logic lies in the way that it can show how some chains work (i.e. are ‘valid’) and some chains do not. To go back to the example of a computer program, the line of programming could read: IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do such and such ELSE IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do some other thing. When the computer follows the program and gets to this point then it will become stuck and ‘crash’. This is because the command has told it to do two different things at the same time. If the user presses the Y key then both sides of the argument are satisfied – and the computer will have to do both!


Another way of thinking about this same point is to talk about consistency. In the example of bad programming above, the source of the difficulty was that ‘Y’ was given as the ‘keypress’ in both cases. One or other should have been ‘N’ – or, even, ‘any other keypress’. This line of programming was therefore inconsistent – it was asking the computer to do two different things if the keypress was ‘Y’. Let’s go back to the waterhole – imagine a brain set up like a computer, with instruction sets that stated: IF it rained yesterday THEN go to waterhole today at dusk, but also, IF it rained yesterday, gather fruit from trees. In this situation, the person concerned is given two incompatible instructions – gather fruit or go to the waterhole? Chances are the poor individual will just stay where they are, unable to reconcile the contradiction, until some other impulse takes over and the situation changes.

To put this in the language of logic, the program at this point is invalid, and in computer programming to call a program ‘invalid’ is to say that there is something wrong with it, that it has a ‘bug’. Although the situation gets much more complicated with today’s software, in essence this is what happens when any computer crashes – it is trying to carry out commands that don’t ‘make sense’. The millennium bug caused some concern a little while ago – this was, in principle, just such an example of invalid programming. Computers were set up to recognise dates by only the last two numbers in the year – so 1999 was simply ‘99’, for example. This was because the computers were programmed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the assumption was made (either consciously or unconsciously) that they would be changed before the year 2000 came along. So, in the programming, a certain assumption was built in – all years would be 19xx, where the xx was the date supplied by the user. The millennium bug happened because this assumption became untrue from the year 2000 onwards. Consequences followed from this mistake, which at some point were believed to be on the scale of a minor apocalypse, although in practice we were spared such a judgement.


So logic is really a way of working out if something makes sense, either in terms of an argument being able to follow on properly (like a computer program) or in terms of one thing being consistent with another. Consider the following, which is something of a classic:

1. All men are mortal
2. Socrates is a man
3. Socrates is mortal.

This is an argument: that is, it is the assertion of one item (3) as a consequence of the assertion of two other items (1 & 2). It is saying: because 1 & 2, therefore 3. In some ways it is a similar argument to a computer program which uses IF…THEN language. IF 1 & 2, THEN 3. As it happens, this argument is a valid argument, and it is worth unpicking why it is valid, and precisely what it means to say that the argument is valid.

The first item, 1, defines an attribute of men, stating that they are mortal. The second item, 2, states that Socrates belongs to the class of men. The third item draws the logical consequence of these two items: Socrates is a man and therefore shares the attribute that all men share – mortality. As such, Socrates is mortal. To say that this argument is valid is to say that the conclusion follows from the premises, that it makes sense. If it were a computer program you would say that it didn’t have any bugs in it. In this argument, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises (philosophers say that the conclusion can be deduced from the premises) – in other words it has to be the case that, IF 1 & 2 are true, THEN 3 also has to be true. There are no situations in which 1 & 2 are true, and 3 is not. This is what is meant by a valid argument: that the logic is sound, there are no ‘bugs’.


However, although interesting, this is not ultimately very exciting. This is because logic and valid argument tell us nothing about truth, or how things are in the world. Consider the following adaptation of the above argument:

1. All men are born with two heads
2. Socrates is a man
3. Socrates was born with two heads.

In terms of the logic of this argument, there is nothing to choose between this argument and the original; they are both equally valid. Yet the first argument says something true, the second says something that is not true. This is because logic is not concerned with truth or falsehood, but only with consistency and the validity of arguments. The difference between these two arguments – one says that all men are mortal, the other says that all men are born with two heads – is not something that logic can be employed to decide between. Whether men are born with two heads or not is not a question about the validity of a particular argument but about what is the case – is it true that all men are born with two heads? In the normal course of events, this is a question that would be answered by looking at the evidence of our senses – have we tended to see men always born with two heads? Are one-headed men carrying wounds where one head was taken away at birth?

In order to establish the truth in this situation, then, we would need to employ a different tool of our understanding. This is a crucial point to bear in mind: logic is a tool, it is not the source of all enlightenment. Think of the tools in a tool-box; there is a hammer, a chisel, a hacksaw, a spanner. It would not be appropriate to use a spanner to separate a plank of wood into two halves – there you should use a saw. In a similar way, although logic is a wonderful and essential part of human life, it is not the only tool that we have when we are reflecting upon the true nature of our world – it must be used in the correct place, in the correct way, and not elsewhere.


So can we use logic to determine which account is the best, between Dawkins, Gould and all the others? Well, it will certainly assist (it might point out some self-contradictions in an argument), but on its own it is not much help. That is for the simple reason that any position you like can be made logically coherent, if a person is prepared to take the consequences. As pointed out above, something can be perfectly logically valid and still be untrue (Socrates has two heads). Consider: although I have never met someone who believes that the earth is flat, I am assured that there is a ‘flat-earth society’, whose members believe that the earth is not a sphere in orbit around the sun, but is instead a flat disc, with edges, and that it is possible to fall off the edge. You might think that it is impossible to make such a belief consistent, that it is impossible to be a logically consistent believer in a flat earth. Yet what arguments would be persuasive? Pictures of the earth as a globe could be fabricated; stories of travel around the world might be fables to lure the unwary; various physical tests could be written off as optical illusions. Even if it were possible to take such a believer out into space so that they could see for themselves that the earth is a globe – “Look! See! It IS round!!” – that would not necessarily succeed. The believer could say “I have been drugged; you have set up a theme park providing this remarkable illusion. My eyes see a globe, but I do not believe my eyes…” And so on.

You can lead the horse to water but you cannot make it drink. So our analysis must shift to the second of our standard criteria: questions of evidence. Even if we cannot reach a logically conclusive argument, we could at least gather together as much relevant evidence as possible and then let people make their own conclusions – and surely, there aren’t many people prepared to place logical consistency ahead of the straightforward evidence of their senses?

SOL #1.3: Gould, Intelligent Design, Creationism

The first set of objections is associated with the name of the late Stephen Jay Gould, and this approach goes by the name of ‘punctuated equilibrium’. It should be stressed that – as Richard Dawkins himself has written, “the theory of punctuated equilibrium lies firmly within the neo-Darwinian synthesis.” The difference between Dawkins and Gould is rather technical, but illuminating nonetheless. ‘Orthodox’ neo-Darwinism – by which I mean that understanding described above, associated with Dawkins – asserts that the pressure which natural selection exerts is a gradual process; that species change in small amounts over vast stretches of time; and that this selection pressure operates through the genetic inheritance passed on from parent to child. Gould disputes this emphasis upon the gene – for him, not only is there a significant amount of luck involved in inheritance, but the pressures of natural selection bear down upon the individuals, not just their genes. Put differently Gould disputes the ‘genetic determinacy’ associated with the orthodox neo-Darwinian account. For Gould, much of Dawkins’ understanding is accepted, but Gould’s outlook allows more room for random chance (e.g. asteroid impacts), and also a slightly different notion of what science can and cannot achieve. For Gould science is not immune to cultural influences, and there is much in human history that cannot be sufficiently explained by reference to natural selection, or indeed, by any scientific outlook. Gould’s writings take much from the realms of literature, history and religion – and are much richer as a result.

The second set of objections is one which is presently gaining ground in the United States of America, and comes in two varieties – ‘creation science’ and ‘intelligent design’. Put simply, these understandings of the universe derive from a more or less literal rendering of chapter one of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, so that the source of the diversity of life as we experience it is explained as a choice by God. Depending on the particular type of creation science advocated, the earth is seen to be only a few thousand years old, and the variation of life experienced is explained by describing the inexhaustible creativity of God. Intelligent design is a slightly different account, although it shares some assumptions; it accepts that the earth has existed for billions of years, but sees the change in different species – and most particularly the development of human intelligence – as something which results from a direct intervention in the universe by God. These approaches argue that the intelligent cause can be identified with the Judaeo-Christian deity, the ‘God of the Bible’. Their understanding grants authority to a religious text and a tradition of interpretation of that text, and they point out the various problems with the theory of evolution, which, on their accounting, leave room for that traditional religious commitment. The creation scientists go one step beyond the intelligent design theorists, in that their tradition of interpreting the Bible requires a strictly literal rendering of the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis. They reject the notions of natural selection, evolution, and indeed the generally accepted timescale provided by modern science, considering that the universe is only some few thousand years old.

How are we to determine the truth between these different accounts? The conventional view – and I imagine the one that Professor Dawkins would advocate – would be to examine each point of view and ask: does this point of view make sense, is it logically consistent? And then ask: what is the evidence for each point of view? Which point of view is best supported?

So let us look at logic and evidence.

I saw a leaf fall

Bank Holiday Monday in the UK. It’s been a big weekend, so I take some time off, and (having spent the morning overhauling the garage, amongst other things) I sit and watch my two young boys splash in the paddling pool. I have a beer in my hand, there is clear blue sky, and I am sitting in the shade looking up at the leaves of the tree on the front lawn. A moment of contentment and contemplation.

I once read that every leaf on a tree catches sunlight. Which I thought remarkable; and then I considered how if a leaf doesn’t catch any sunlight, it can’t be doing the tree any good in terms of processing the energy, which is why the leaves grow where they do. There is an explanation available.

Then I saw a leaf fall which wasn’t green, it was a sickly yellow. It wasn’t catching enough sunlight to live.

(I sometimes feel a bit like that leaf, but afternoons like this get my chlorophyll working again.)

And I remember that the explanation doesn’t really make much difference. The tree is beautiful. It is still remarkable how each leaf catches the sunshine; that this is how it all hangs together.

In Remarks on Colour, §317, Wittgenstein writes: “When someone who believes in God looks around him and asks ‘Where did everything that I see come from?’ ‘Where did everything come from?’, he is not asking for a (causal) explanation; and the point of his question is that it is the expression of such a request. Thus, he is expressing an attitude towards all explanations.”

In other words: this is meaningful. Asking the question is an expression of its meaning, not a query about the meaning.

Ricky Fitts: It’s like God’s looking right at you, just for a second, and if you’re careful you can look right back.
Jane Burnham: And what do you see?
Ricky Fitts: Beauty.

New window

Yesterday, the Archdeacon of Colchester, Ven. Annette Cooper, solemnly dedicated a new window in West Mersea Parish Church, to commemorate the Island’s Fishermen and Oystermen. (Thanks to Pat Kirby for the photo)

Soli Deo Gloria!

The political Jesus

(today’s sermon)

Simon – leading disciple – declares that Jesus is the Son of God; and then Jesus calls him Peter – Rocky! – ‘on this rock I shall build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’.

Peter, duly renamed, feels great.

Yet within moments, when Jesus starts to explain what it meant to be the Son of God – that there was suffering involved – Peter tries to talk him out of it.

“Get thee behind me Satan!”

Any chance of Peter’s ego being too large vanishes.

What did he get wrong? The problem is that Peter was using the Son of God language in the way that parts of the Old Testament sees the Messiah – a Son of David, who would restore Israel, fulfilling all the promises made by God. This was the secularisation of God’s intentions. God called Israel to be the holy people, the ones who would demonstrate justice and God’s own nature to the wider world. Not to be another country, squabbling and warring over who shall be in control. And Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s plans for Israel because in him God’s call is answered. Christ, perfectly obedient, displays to the world what God is calling humanity to be.

And it doesn’t involve him sitting on a throne in Jerusalem.

So does this mean that Jesus wasn’t political? And that – as Christians – we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the political process? Not at all. Jesus’ ministry could not have been more political.

Consider how it begins: after being baptised, and tempted by Satan, Jesus goes back to his hometown, goes into the synagogue, reads from Isaiah and declares the Jubilee! So: all those who had become rich, who had accumulated land – sorry guys, time to give it all up. Whereas all those who had lost their land, who had got into debt – Hallelujah! Redemption Song!

It’s difficult to imagine anything more directly political than taking wealth away from rich people and giving it to poor people; yet that was the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry – as it is of the Bible as a whole. “I am the God who called you out of Egypt” – out of slavery. That is still the promise which God makes.

This is not because wealth is itself sinful. It’s that the concentration of wealth in few hands causes, inevitably, other people to fall by the wayside. It’s the story of Lazarus at the gate, which should surely cause us all to tremble.

So why isn’t Jesus wanting to take that throne in Jerusalem? For the simple reason that Christ knows it isn’t force which is required. It isn’t a change of political system that is required. It is the change in people’s hearts. Think of the language of the leaven in the bread; or the salt that has lost its savour. It is, for Christians, never a question of changing the system, so much as of changing the people within the system. First we learn what it means to love one another, then we can seek to express that love through a political arrangement. The Christian calling is to live out a different life, one structured by the values of the Kingdom of God.

And that has profound political implications.

Those implications need not be headline grabbing. They need not, for example, be consumed with the exact whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs, of what is going on in Iraq. They are, instead, very concrete, down to earth and specific. How will you relate to your neighbour? That may easily have political implications, but the roots of the behaviour lie not in a concern with power, but in a concern with love. We are called to follow the way of love, to love one another as He loved us; and this will have consequences.

Consider the story of André Trocmé. Trocmé was a pastor in central France in the middle of the twentieth century, at a place called Le Chambon. When France was conquered by the Nazis, and the Vichy regime started to implement the anti-semitic legislation required, Trocmé stood up in front of his congregation and told them that he was not going to co-operate with the state. He was not going to violently resist, but nor could he simply stand by and watch violence be done to his neighbour. And so – with the full and active support of his congregations, Trocmé established a system which enabled the hiding of hundreds of Jewish people, especially children, until the darkness could pass, and that system was destroyed. Trocmé risked his life for his neighbour, and it was a matter of sheer luck that he wasn’t executed. We are not in that situation; not yet – although if the anti-Islamic tendencies strengthen in the coming years then we must be clear about what the Christian faith calls us to do – to defend all those made in the image of God from actions which would blaspheme that image, and oppress or persecute our brothers and sisters.

This is the nature of the life to which we are called. And this is what Peter couldn’t quite understand. Peter sought the implementation by force of the right answers. And certainly, the forcible implementation of a Jubilee would have represented the establishment of justice – for a time. For the truth is that the use of force perpetuates and legitimates the use of force. Jesus’ way is a different path. It is a path which leads through death.

Peter cannot cope with the idea that Jesus might die. And it is precisely this fear of death which provides the authorities with their power. They trust that, because they have the ultimate power of killing those who oppose them, that they will be able to get their way. That might will make right. Yet what does it profiteth a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul? It is this fear of death that Jesus overcomes in the resurrection. The resurrection is the single most powerful political statement ever made – it dethrones all the powers that be, and exposes their nature.

Recently I came across a wonderful summary of the New Testament. It reduced it all to two short and succinct phrases. The first was: If you don’t love, you die. In other words, we are made in the image of God, and that means that we are made to love one another. If we don’t love each other, our soul begins to shrivel and wither, and we make ourselves less than human, we deface the image of Christ within. If we do not love, we die.

The second phrase was: if you love, they’ll kill you. In other words, acting according to our true nature and loving our neighbour will lead to opposition and conflict with the powers of the world. If we love, then we shall be persecuted. This is the way of the cross. This is the path which Jesus trod, and it is what we are called to follow. There is a glorious liberty about this path – it is the way of life, life in all its fullness, and everything else is stale and shallow by comparison. But it will lead to conflict with the values of the world.

Peter himself came to understand this, and at the end of his life, after a long and fruitful ministry, he too was crucified. Not many of us will be called to witness to the truths of our faith to that extent. But it remains the calling that every Christian must be prepared for. For we are not children of this world, we have a different Lord. May his grace surround us as we walk in the path, and give us the strength to take up our cross, and follow Him.

SOL #1.2: the claim of evolution

Dawkins draws a remarkable conclusion from this approach. His conclusion is that science can replace religion; that religion has been superseded by science; that science can answer the questions which were once answered by religion. Consider these comments:

‘[now that we have the theory of evolution we] no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man?’ (from ‘The Selfish Gene’ )

‘…our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but… it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.’ (from ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ )

‘I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence’ (from ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ , his emphasis).

Dawkins is here asserting that the theory of evolution is able to provide the only answers that are viable in our present age; that, in the words of a fellow zoologist whom he quotes with approval: “The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question [What is Man?] before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely” .

In making this argument, Dawkins’ writings are congruous with much ‘popular science’ writing. Paul Davies, for example, claims that ‘In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion’ . Stephen Hawking’s famous conclusion to ‘A Brief History of Time’ ends with the dramatic claim that if we found a complete physical theory of the universe, “…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God”. According to ‘The Independent’ newspaper: ‘The real priests of the future are scientists, as they have been since the Industrial Revolution’ .


Dawkins refers to ‘deep problems’ or ‘mysteries’. These problems are the ones where, historically, Christianity has offered the answers that our culture has accepted. Other cultures have had more or less different answers, bound up in each case with religions that are more or less different from Christianity. Yet in each case the character of the answers provided are religious – they engage with us at the most profound level possible, and the answers given then shape the wider culture. Let us agree to call these questions of meaning, purpose and self-understanding “serious questions”, for they are concerned with the seriousness of life. Dawkins’ claim, then, is that science gives the best answer yet to our ‘serious questions’.

I believe that this is profoundly mistaken. I believe that no scientific answer could possibly be an answer to our serious questions. In my view, the process by which an answer becomes a ‘scientific’ answer (in the sense that Dawkins requires) necessarily stops that answer applying to our serious questions.

Clearly, I have a significant task of explanation on my hands.


So what is this conception in which Dawkins places such trust? In brief, it is an explanation of biological complexity, which relies upon only a few simple axioms to account for the diversity of life as we presently experience it.

The central idea is that of natural selection. If we consider the history of animal breeding – for example, with horses or dogs – then it is clear that humans have changed the characteristics of various breeds, in line with their own preferences. In these instances there is a human being (or a succession of human beings) acting as a selector of different traits within a breed which causes the breeds to change over time. Darwin employed this as the ground for a metaphor – that, over time, nature acted in the same fashion as these human selectors – and that there is therefore something called natural selection.

Where human selection was driven by human preferences, natural selection is driven by one single ‘preference’ or constraint – the ability to reproduce, to have offspring. The idea is that in any given context there are limited resources available and that different species – and different individuals of the same species – will compete to gain those resources. Those individuals and species which succeed in gaining those scarce resources will be able to have more offspring, and, over time, will dominate and drive their competitors to extinction.

For Darwin, the ‘unit of selection’ was unknown. That means simply that Darwin didn’t know how the ability to compete was passed on from parent to offspring. This is crucial to the theory, for if it could be shown that the ability to compete is not passed on from parent to child, then the theory breaks down – for there is nothing for natural selection to act upon. However, following twentieth century developments in molecular biology, we have a much better understanding of what this unit of selection might be – we call it the gene. Although there is still much that is unknown about the ways in which the gene affects the overt characteristics of individuals and species, it seems fairly clear that the genetic inheritance is responsible for a great deal of the success or failure of individuals and species within a particular environment. This is the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis’ – a synthesis which combines the Darwinian ideas of natural selection and inherited characteristics, with the science of DNA. It is this synthesis which Dawkins articulated and popularized so successfully in ‘The Selfish Gene’.


There is a great deal of evidence which supports this synthesis, which recommends it to us as a good account of how different species have come to be as they are. To begin with, there is the question of timescale. We know from research in geology and astrophysics that the earth has existed for a very long time – some four and a half billion years or so. This provides evolutionary theory with a sufficiently broad canvas, within which natural selection can operate.

Secondly, there is the evidence from palaeontology – the study of fossils. We can tell from examination of rock strata that certain layers of rock were laid down at certain periods of time (the Pleiocene, the Cambrian and so on), and in those strata there are fossils of all sorts of different life-forms. The most popular of those life-forms are, of course, the dinosaurs, who existed until some 65 million years ago, and whose demise – probably as the result of an asteroid impact with the earth, although that is disputed – allowed mammals to become the dominant species on our planet. So we have both a sufficient timescale within which evolution can take place, and we also have evidence of a wide variety of life existing during those different periods.

In addition to this, through the study of DNA we now have a very clear idea of how characteristics can be inherited from parent to child, and through mathematical studies, we can model the distribution of particular characteristics in a population. There is a wealth of detailed evidence to support this understanding.

For Dawkins, then, all of life can be explained by the story of evolution, the slow step by step climbing of ‘mount improbable’ by the genetic line of inheritance. Natural selection – and only natural selection – is both a necessary and sufficient explanation for the existence and nature of life as we know it.

Does this mean that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is incontestable as an account of human nature? Not so fast.

SOL #1.1: Beginning from Richard Dawkins

Chapter One – The story of creation

“Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §336)

“The popular scientific books by our scientists aren’t the outcome of hard work, but are written when they are resting on their laurels.” (Wittgenstein, 1942)

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.52)


I read this in ‘The Independent’ newspaper of 20 February, 2003. Richard Dawkins is responding to questions sent in by readers of the newspaper.

Did you have a Pauline conversion to atheism? Or did your beliefs evolve more slowly over time? What changed your mind?
(Adam Elford, Northampton)

I had a normal, decent Anglican upbringing, which is to say that I was never brainwashed as I might have been had I been brought up in another faith.

I toyed with atheism from the age of about nine, originally because I worked out that, of all the hundreds of religions in the world, it was the sheerest accident that I was brought up Christian. They couldn’t all be right, so maybe none of them was. I later reverted to a kind of pantheism when I realised the shattering complexity and beauty of the living world. Then, around the age of 16, I first understood that Darwinism provides an explanation big enough and elegant enough to replace gods. I have been an atheist ever since.

If, when you die, you find yourself unexpectedly at the Pearly Gates, what would you say to St Peter?
(Mark Richards, by e-mail)

OK, I was wrong. But I was wrong for the right reasons. Those guys in there were right. But just look at their reasons.

Richard Dawkins is possibly the most prominent atheist in England. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He has written many books about the nature and implications of evolutionary theory, books marked by their lucidity and intellectual verve. He is clearly a very intelligent man with a gift for communicating difficult ideas in an accessible way. Unfortunately, almost everything that he has ever said about Christianity is false.


This is not entirely Professor Dawkins’ fault. His understanding of Christianity is a very common one. Yet, as I am sure that Professor Dawkins’ would agree, the fact that many people hold such a common understanding does not mean that it is the correct understanding. As the joke has it: a hundred thousand lemmings cannot be wrong.


My point is not that Dawkins believes Christianity is about believing one thing, whereas in truth Christianity is about believing something else. No: although beliefs have their place, my disagreement with the Professor is more basic than this. Dawkins – in common with many people on both sides of the Christian/atheist divide – considers that the defining characteristic of a Christian is the acceptance of certain beliefs. This I deny. Christianity is not about belief in certain propositions, it is about the orientation of your life.


Dawkins has a very distinct conception of what sort of thing religious faith is. He writes in ‘The Selfish Gene’:

‘Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational enquiry.’

In a footnote to this passage he expands:

‘But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something – it doesn’t matter what – in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway… I don’t want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way of preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed.’

Dawkins goes on to say:

‘…faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness… Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings… What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.’

According to the Dawkins conception, then, faith is ‘blind’, and not open to rational debate. Justifiable beliefs must rest upon a rational account of the world, where there is recourse to publicly available evidence and harmony with our discoveries and experience. In other words, they must be scientific answers.

Faith and science are therefore the same sort of thing. They are both beliefs about the world. They have the same logical status. The difference between them is one of rational legitimacy. Religious beliefs cannot be supported by appeals to reason or evidence. Scientific beliefs can. Therefore, scientific beliefs are superior to religious beliefs.

This is the key mistake, for religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are not at all the same sort of thing.

The Seriousness of Life

‘If what we do now makes no difference in the end then all the seriousness of life is done away with’

That’s Wittgenstein, responding to why Origen was considered a heretic for believing in universal salvation.

It’s also the title of the book I’m writing. So when I put extracts onto the blog I’ll title them ‘SOL #1’ etc – normally with something else as well, to indicate the content.

First example following shortly…