Chapter 1. “God”
To my mind Richard Dawkins is entirely right in his rejection of “God”. I write “God” in quotation marks because the God he rejects, the only one he seems to know, is supposed to exist outside the universe which He created, although manufactured might be a better word for the contriving activities of such a God. The classical expression of this view was put forward in the nineteenth century by William Paley in his book Natural Theology (Dawkins labours under the illusion that Aquinas held a similar view but this is far from the case, as I shall explain). Paley was a parson living in Cumbria and the first paragraph of his book became a classic Victorian text. Imagine yourself walking across a heath, argues Paley. You might come across a stone lying in your path, and might reasonably suppose that it had got there by accident. But now suppose you saw a watch lying on the path. The watch couldn’t have arisen by sheer accident because it is so intricately and delicately contrived. So it is with the living organisms we see all about us. Because they are even more exquisitely complex than even a watch, they too could not have arisen by accident. As a watch is unthinkable without a designer, so too with living organisms.
There are two arguments for the existence of this divine contriver outside the universe that Dawkins has in his sights. The one put forward by Paley, the argument from design, presents him with little difficulty. Darwin showed unarguably, I think one could say now, that complex organisms could indeed have arisen by accident. Once you accept natural selection, and the overwhelming evidence for it both in living organisms and the fossil record, then, despite Paley’s astonishingly impressive knowledge of physiology and anatomy, the argument from design vanishes into thin air. The other argument that Dawkins refutes is that from a first cause. Everything we see about us in the universe only exists because it was brought into existence by something that existed before it did. But that causal agent was itself caused by something that existed before it itself did, and so back and back through a seemingly endless chain of causes. But such a chain cannot be endless, or rather beginningless. At some point there has to be a first cause in the chain and that we call God. Dawkins responds: even if you grant that there has to be a first cause, which is questionable but let that pass, then the Big Bang suffices. Everything we know in the universe was embryonically contained in it. There is no need to invoke a causal God.
Dawkins’ thesis has been greatly strengthened lately by Stephen Hawking’s contention that the Big Bang could have arisen out of nothing simply as a consequence of the laws of nature. Hawking has been criticized in his turn by Professor John C. Lennox in his book God and Stephen Hawking.[i] In Hawking’s own definition, a law of nature is based upon an observed regularity and provides predictions that go beyond the immediate observations upon which it is based. But in saying that laws can create themselves, Hawking, thinks Lennox, has confused physical law with personal agency. The laws simply describe regularities that happen. They do not explain or create them. As an illustration Lennox asks us to consider Sir Frank Whittle’s invention of the jet engine. The jet engine can only exist because of the laws of physics. But it is absurd to say that the laws of physics caused the jet engine to exist. We need both levels of explanation. Descartes, Galileo, Kepler and Newton discovered some of the most basic laws of nature, but they never thought for a moment that the laws could replace the God who created them.
I’m just wondering whether Professor Lennox has completely misunderstood Professor Hawking. Hawking knows very well that Newton thought God created the laws he so famously discovered. But I think Hawking would reply: ‘great as my predecessor in the Lucasian chair at Cambridge was, he didn’t know about quantum physics. And I’m telling you that at the quantum level the laws of nature can create themselves.’ When the most famous physicist in the world tells us that arguments drawn from classical physics, like that of Sir Frank Whittle and the jet engine, do not apply at the quantum level, it undermines our confidence in Professor Lennox. And our own hitherto, perhaps unthinking, acceptance of the argument that every chain of causes must have an uncaused first cause also wobbles pretty alarmingly. But, mark this, it also prevents us from accepting Professor Hawking’s argument as well. Hawking may know a lot about quantum physics but most of us do not. We have no way of judging whether Hawking is right or wrong. For most of us the debate has become abstruse, unhelpful and sterile. And this is my problem with The God Delusion. I don’t think it’s wrong because wrong is not an appropriate word to use about somebody’s beliefs. But the highly abstract arguments for and against design and for and against a first cause that we find in the book are unhelpful and sterile. Because in my view The God Delusion is theologically less than completely informed, to put it politely, to an astonishing degree for a book that enters so confidently, indeed brazenly, into the territory of theology, it only offers us a negation. It fails to present us with an alternative understanding of what we might mean by “God”, and so, far from delivering us into freedom from unthinking dogma, withers our powers of choice.
[i] John C. Lennox 2011 God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design is it Anyway Lion Books