Understanding in the Gaps

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Science and religion, depending on the perspective, enjoy a beautiful (or contentious) marriage or have been the victors (or victims) of a bitter divorce in the modern world.  Debates on science and religion dot the Internet, providing plenty of food for fodder no matter which side of the family one might identify with.

One such debate involves Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist and author from Oxford and his Oxford fellow, John Lennox, the mathematician and philosopher of science. Both men are marvelously well spoken and present their competing views eloquently and  convincingly, though they cannot both be right in their ultimate positions.

The debate, which uses Dawkin’s book, the God Delusion, as the subject matter,  is quite long, not the usual fare in the MTV age of tweets and soundbites, but well worth taking the time to listen and watch. They begin with biographical information and early influences that inform their worldviews. The meat of the debate uses statements from Dawkins’ book as the outline.

The first statement from Dawkins’ book is that faith is blind, and science is based on evidence. Both men agree on the second statement, so the focal point is the statement that faith is blind. Dawkins contrasts faith and science on the basis that faith is content with not understanding everything. While science pushes us ever toward greater understanding of the gaps in our knowledge, religion is content to wallow in ignorance.

Dawkins assumes the validity of the statement (that faith is blind), and he focuses only on the effect of this assumed truism. Lennox, no surprise, rejecting the truth of that statement, provides evidence to contrary. Dawkins has no rebuttal, other than to rest on the initial statement.

If Dawkins statement was an allegation made in litigation, Lennox prevails. A bare assertion of fact with no evidence carries with it no presumption of truth in a court of law. When evidence (any evidence) is presented to the contrary, the initial assumption is presumed to have been overcome without further evidence. Since Dawkins presented no further evidence, but rested on the initial statement., Dawkins would lose that argument before a judge.

But, the debate did not take place in a court of law, and a focus on the substantive due process might eclipse the most interesting aspect of the exchange. Lennox suggests “a creeping danger of equating [conflating] science with rationality”. Science has limits Lennox says.

Indeed, science, by definition, is the study of the material, natural world. Anything beyond the material, natural world, therefore, is beyond science.

Examples of subjects beyond science include poetry, literature, art and music. Lennox says, “Science cannot tell us what is good or beautiful”. Morality is another subject beyond the reach of science to explain. Says Lennox, “Science can tell us if you put strychnine into your grandmother’s tea, it will kill her, but science cannot tell us whether it is morally right to do so.”

Dawkins agrees with this last statement: that science cannot help us with morality. Atheism is a natural extension of naturalism, and, according to Dawkins, “Naturalists simply assert that nature is reality, the whole of it.”  Most naturalists, like Dawkins, will not acknowledge or allow for any reality other than the natural world.

Even Dawkins (in his opening statement, for instance) acknowledges such things as beauty, which are wholly beyond science to explain. That is ironic alone, but there is another, deeper irony in the debate.

Dawkins accuses people of faith of being content to remain ignorant of the gaps in our understanding of the natural world. When we don’t know, we fill the gap with God and move on, content to be ignorant, says Dawkins. This is the first premise of the book: that religion is bad because it teaches people to be content with not understanding.

Dawkins, at the same time, denies that anything lies beyond the natural world and the reach of science (which is the study of the natural world). But this is plainly incorrect.

Lennox quotes Nobel Prize winner, Sir Peter Medawar, who spoke about the limits of science, observing that Science “cannot answer the elementary questions of a child: Who am I? What is the purpose of my existence? Where am I going?” Dawkins apparently concedes that we cannot know those things, and is apparently content with that limitation of understanding.

One might say, then, that the naturalist is content in not understanding anything beyond the realm of natural science. And herein lies the irony. While Dawkins claims that faith makes people content with a lack of understanding science, Dawkins is content with a lack of understanding of anything beyond science.

To be fair, Dawkins’ charge is that religion is content with lack of “Understanding” (capital “U”), but that flows from the presumption that all Understanding is limited to the natural world, of which science is the prime investigator. The statement that science is content with the lack of understanding of anything beyond science is not such a universal claim, but also (therefore) does not suffer the flaw of being a categorical claim, as Dawkins’ claim is.

Dawkins may be right of course. If he is right, then he is simply being content with the limitations as they are. No wishful thinking could ever conjure up something that simply does not exist. If the natural world is all there in, then science is all that we need to inform us about the world.

But Dawkins’ argument here is not about whether anything exists beyond science (he clearly believes nothing does); his argument is that religion makes people content with not knowing or understanding. Professor Lennox, who is Cambridge educated and whose grasp of mathematics and science is recognized by his professorship at Oxford University, a premier academic university, is a prime counter-example of Dawkins’ claim.

Men of science can either be atheistic or theistic. Faith has nothing to do with the motivation to study science. A theist can be as enthusiastically scientific as an atheist – Dr. Lennox being a case in point.

Thus, Dawkins’ points that faith is blind and that faith is content with lack of (scientific) understanding are patently false. (Aside from the obvious point that “faith” is not a person or group of people), Lennox is proof of that there is nothing inherent in faith that is content with not understanding science. According to Lennox, the belief, trust and commitment demanded by faith “is only as robust as the evidence to support it”.

More importantly, we see in this exchange that faith can account for science and make room for the knowledge of natural laws and material universe, but science cannot account for or make room for anything other than the natural world. Science, in that sense, is much more limited than faith.

Science does close some of the gaps that people used to fill with God (to borrow from a Dawkins analogy). But the idea that we fill the gaps (whatever they may be) with God is really a misunderstanding. Our knowledge of science does not crowd God out of the gaps. Further, gaps exist that science simply cannot fill, as Dawkins, himself, has acknowledged – morality, beauty, etc.

While Dawkins accuses people of faith with being content not knowing, Lennox charges Dawkins with confusing mechanism (which science can reveal) and agency (which is beyond science to explain). Simply knowing how the mechanism works does not exclude the need for an engineer. Being content to understand nothing more than the working of a Ford combustion engine is being content not knowing anything about Henry Ford. And so, Dawkins is guilty of the very thing he accuses of Christians of being – willingly ignorant of the gaps.

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