Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Did Man make God? debate

On Tuesday 30th
Did Man Make God?
Old College, Lecture theatre 175. 7:30 to 8:30 pm

Join in the debate: The ‘God Delusion’ or ‘The Way, the Truth and the Light’. Hear both sides of the argument and make up your own mind.

John Wiltshire (a mathematical systems engineer) will take the speaker's chair against Fr Hunter (a priest from Oxford)

Everybody welcome…

Obviously, SHS members are encouraged to attend this event!


Timothy Mills said...

Another excellent event for the SHS to have participated in. Here's my summary. (It may seem long, but it really is just the highlights!)

Each speaker had 20 minutes to present the case: God Delusion or The Way, The Light, and The Truth. This was followed by a 5-minute rebuttal by each speaker and then questions from the audience.

The first speaker - a former Catholic - argued the "God Delusion" side of the debate: humans made God. His arguments largely followed Dawkins' arguments in The God Delusion. These take two tacks. One is to show that science is the most powerful tool we have for discovering the way the world works - it's better than philosophy, religion, intuition, tradition, anything else we've come up with. Science shows us how the universe works, and how to use it (technology). The other tack is to show that religion is bad. This is done in many ways: the grievous historical sins of organised religions, the (apparent) opposition between religion and science, and the tendency of religious answers to forestall further investigation rather than to encourage it. The conclusion is that, since science does not provide positive evidence of a god (and actually debunks many religious claims - most notably about human origins), and since religions are generally bad, then God must not exist.

The second speaker, a priest who travelled up from Oxford, spent most of his time pointing out holes in the "God Delusion" argument - particularly as presented by Dawkins. His main points centred around the weaknesses in the philosophy of Dawkins - particularly his lack of understanding of religious beliefs. He argued that, while he accepts the scientific account of evolution (he even clearly rejected the apalling pseudo-science of intelligent design), there are questions that science cannot answer - such as the ultimate cause of the universe. This is not a "God of the gaps", but a recognition that, in being so rigorous, science is unable to probe certain questions that humans like to pose. He then spent a little time describing why he feels God is the best answer to that sort of question.

I hate to be negative, but it seemed to me that the most either speaker could be said to have established was that each established that his position regarding the existence or non-existence of God is consistent with the empirical evidence. By setting up a false dichotomy between acceptance of scientific understanding and belief in God, the humanist speaker completely failed to address the important subtleties of the Catholic priest's position - particularly his assertion that there is room in questions that science cannot answer for a God like that of Christianity to exist. The Catholic speaker, after quite correctly knocking down the false dichotomies and simplistic arguments that Dawkins occasionally falls into, presented an incredibly weak argument for the existence of God which amounted, as far as I could tell, to the claim that "The answer that God is the First Cause is more intuitively satisfying than the alternatives." The history of science is littered with intuitively satisfying answers that just didn't turn out to be true.

In brief, to quote Julia Sweeney, "The universe behaves exactly the way we would expect it to behave if there were no God." And, to paraphrase, "The universe also behaves exactly the way we would expect it to behave if the God described by Peter Hunter exists." That's about as much as this debate really established, as far as I can tell.

I'd recommend anyone interested in looking deeper at how to tease these different hypotheses apart to look at the book On Humanism by Richard Norman.

- Tim -

Timothy Mills said...

Another interesting debate on a similar theme can be found at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/209/story_20904_1.html.

It is an ongoing e-mail exchange between well-known American humanist Sam Harris and a very thoughtful moderate Christian, Andrew Sullivan. Like the debate above, theirs manages to remain civil and intelligent without any dishonest holding back of vehement objections.

I find it very encouraging to see dialogues like this in the public sphere.

- Tim -