Unbelievable Project: John Lennox debates science and God – Has science buried God?

10/13/07 – John Lennox debates science and God – Has science buried God?

As part of the Unbelievable Project, I am taking notes and “arm-chair” responding to each of the Unbelievable podcast episodes satisfying a set of simple rules.

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Description of Episode

  • Full Title: Unbelievable? 13 Oct 2007 – John Lennox debates science & God – 13 October 2007 — Has science buried God?

    Fresh from a US TV debate with Richard Dawkins, Oxford Professor Dr. John Lennox engages with atheist scientist Robert Stovold.  Lennox, who is a Christian, asserts in his book “God’s Undertaker – Has science buried God?” that science and philosophy show evidence of a divine designer.  Robert Stovold says the methodology of science is incompatible with such belief.

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  • Justin Brierley – Christian Moderator
  • John Lennox – Christian
  • Robert Stovold – Atheist


Me – this episode was a lot of work, because both debaters were very strong and the density of information in this episode is very high – a lot of information per minute. I had to go back and listen to parts many times. I particularly like Robert’s style – he is very calm and straightforward, never sounding angry or aggressive. I highly recommend you listen to the entire debate, because I won’t be able to cover everything here.

Robert – A common theistic line of argument refers to the appearance of design, and states things like “the eye cannot occur by chance”. If you think evolution is about randomness, then you don’t understand evolution. If you drop a fish and a lion and drop them on the ground, it is not random which one will survive, and it doesn’t require design to explain this.

Robert – In the Bible “Love” is defined, both in the Old and New Testament, in such a way that it always prevails, and always helps. Then, with 99% of the species that ever existed being extinct, this is not consistent with a loving God. All of this suffering happened well before any humans, and Fall, or Noah’s flood.

John – This is the problem of theodicy. What I would be curious about is where you even get the idea of right and wrong, because under atheism, there can be no objective moral standard.

Me – at this point I was jumping up a screaming. Dodge! Dodge! I’d heard this dodge before, and essentially it ignores the force of the argument. Robert followed up well, but then added some comments about where an atheistic morality (as a social construct) comes from. This derailed the conversation and John never addressed the point. The point is that, if we assume the Bible is true, then the problem of suffering, as evidenced by the inefficient and wasteful methods of evolution, leads to a conflict with a loving God. I don’t have to even believe that evil and good exist to make this argument – it is a “spin out the consequences” of a worldview and show a conflict. Robert describes very well how evolution gives the appearance of design – instead of nudging things in the right direction, evolution nudges things in “all” directions and the kills off the directions that don’t work.

Robert – the war is between naturalism and supernaturalism not between atheism and God. science ascribes natural causes to natural effects (methodological naturalism). It isn’t that science assumes God doesn’t exist, it simply doesn’t include supernatural explanations.

John – methodological naturalism is the same as methodological theism. Dawkins says the world is apparently designed, I say it is designed. It is only in certain areas, not 99.5% of science, that it makes any difference. there are good gaps and bad gaps. bad gaps are gaps that science can close. methodological naturalism is ok but it stops you when the evidence points beyond naturalism. Two “good gaps” I would say are the origin of the universe and the origin of life.

Me – I’d bet real money that the origin of life is a “bad gap”, from John’s perspective. In every case where we had a thorny science problem that seemed insoluble, and we had to resort to “magic” (i.e. this lovely cartoon), eventually we have solved it. The origin of life seems exactly that sort of thing that is amenable to solution. As a problem, it doesn’t suffer from the infinite regress issues from which origin of the universe solutions can suffer.

John – in science it is often very difficult to prove a negative, although there are cases where (within a reasonable doubt) we can do that. when I receive a paper outlining in 100 pages a design for a perpetual motion machine, I don’t need to read it. Not because I’m being an abscurantist, but because the conservation of energy (a “pro-scriptive law”) is a principle that has been demonstrated to be true in all cases, within a reasonably doubt. Now, Sir Peter Meadower has proposed a conservation of information. nature is very good at transmitting information, processing and optimizing as is done in microevolution. where I have difficulty is with the creative process – those natural processes cannot create information.

Me – This is one of the cases where John makes a fundamental science mistake [see comment below for correction/clarification on this], and tips his hand to his agenda. In a line, perpetual motion machines do not violate conservation of energy. They violate the second law of thermodynamics. Such a basic science error, in my view, disqualifies his entire scientific credibility – I can’t trust that his other scientific claims, even if I may not have time to track them all down.

Also, in a fit of irony, he then goes on to talk about information which is intricately linked to the second law. It is absolutely not true that natural processes produce no new information. For example, the natural development of nylonase is a good example within our lifetime – bacteria evolved a new enzyme to specifically break down the completely artificial substance known as nylon.

Just as a the formation of ice moves water from a disordered to a more ordered state, the process of natural selection moves species to a ordered state — more in-line with the environment. Information production, i.e. entropy reduction, happens all of the time in the natural world.

John – I believe that the fact that the universe is rationally intelligible is evidence for God. Atheism has no explanation for it, but theism does. Thus, support for God comes from the bits of science that we do know and not the bits we don’t. He is amazed that scientists stop short of the most important question, simply calling it a brute fact.

Me – What is the alternative? Any universe with sustained structures should be intelligible. A non-intelligible universe would be one with no patterns – completely random, and thus no structure would ever form. There is no way we could be thinking beings in an unintelligible universe. It is also possible that one could not even have an object that one could label a “universe” without it being intelligible.

John – Reductionism undermines the notion of inteligibility. Intelligibility demands an explanation. “I don’t bring god into science, […] science points to god in its very existence”

John – On the fine tuning argument, the constants of nature have to be within very close tolerances to get carbon based life. An easier example is more local. Taking the Earth, if the Earth were spinning faster we’d all fly off, if slower then we’d all bake to death. If we were too close to the Sun, it’d be too hot, too far and it’s too cold. These things have to be in very close tolerances. The standard Find Tuning observation takes this to the Nth degree. This is not an argument from gaps, its from our knowledge.

Robert. Theists are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand God’s goal is to create life and on the other hand if it had been slightly different then life wouldn’t be possible. Life’s very rare. Imagine a patio with weeds in the cracks. The weeds would say that the cracks were put there to support them, ignoring the rest of the patio.

Robert. As for fine tuning, we don’t know if the constants are twiddle-able. Theists will have an explanation either way. If they are twiddle-able then God was so good to twiddle them correctly. If not, then the argument would be that God knew what he wanted and dint need to make a university with changeable constants. Most theistic arguments are like this – you can explain anything, and thus explain nothing.

Lennox. Most scientists respond that the fine tuning does require an explanation, and often put forward the multiverse explanation even though there is not a shred of evidence for it. The theistic explanation is the obvious one that everyone admits, but then they try to come up with another explanation.

Robert – once you abandon the law of cause and effect, you can’t do science.

Me – I agree with Robert the whole way here. I would add, however, that it may be the case that these constants are in fact not independent. Many physicists will state that they are independent, because in current theory they are, but they may not be in some future theory. Thus, it might be that not only are they not twiddle-able but they might not be separately twiddle-able, and thus life may be possible in all possible universes. Finally, as an analogy, if we look at pre-Copernican astronomy with all of the epicycles on epicycles, a scientist at that time would find it very difficult to fathom that all of that independent detail could be derived from two equations (Newton’s 3rd Law, and the theory of gravitation). Another analogy would be the independent spectral lines of each type of material, used in the 1800’s for spectroscopy, being explained by the single Schoedinger equation! We have many examples of so-called independent observations not actually being independent when we have a full understanding.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to Unbelievable Project: John Lennox debates science and God – Has science buried God?

  1. Mich says:

    Brian – John was correct that perpetual motion machines are prohibited by the conservation of energy. It is clear that you do not understand even the very basics of modern physics and therefore any scientific credibility is zero.

    • brianblais says:

      Let me clarify, after reading a bit more about perpetual motion machines. Some perpetual motion machines violate conservation of energy, others violate entropy law (2nd law), and some both. Not all are prohibited by conservation of energy, although it does appear that the patent law focussed primarily on the violation of energy. Thus, I did overstate my case against John here. However, given that his next sentence talks about conservation of “information” – a concept intricately tied to the 2nd law – his failure to address the violation of both laws of thermodynamics still tips his hand to his agenda, I believe.

      To state that this is a basic “modern” physics seems a little silly, given that these ideas are over 100 years old. 🙂

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