Starting with a Bang
- Wednesday, August 04, 2010
The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.
~ Arno Penzias (astrophysicist and Nobel laureate) in The New York Times, 12 March 1978
If you do an internet search on ‘Huxley Memorial Debate' (don't forget the inverted commas) you should get around 500 citations—which is a bit surprising considering that the debate took place over twenty years ago and is now history (in whatever sense you choose!).
The debate was held at the Oxford Union on 14 February 1986 on the motion that ‘The doctrine of creation is more valid than the theory of evolution.' Under the Oxford Union's arcane rules, I spoke first as seconder of the motion, followed by Richard Dawkins who seconded for the opposition. The proposer, Dr A. E. Wilder-Smith, followed and the opposer, Prof. John Maynard- Smith, spoke last. The debate was then thrown open to the floor and the motion was eventually defeated. But we ‘creationists' lost by a surprisingly small margin considering that many students came to the debate seeking entertainment at our expense. Unfortunately, the relevant Oxford Union minute book was subsequently and mysteriously lost or stolen, and no written record remains of the actual result. However, the whole debate was recorded on tape (CD recordings are still available; see link below) and the result was read out none too clearly by the moderator as 198 against the motion and either 115 or 150 in favour. The final vote was taken very late, long after I had retired to bed, so I can't confirm the matter one way or another. However, to avoid arguments I am content to settle for 115, meaning that significantly more than one third of those voting were persuaded by the case for creation.
My own speech centred on the thesis that, by their very nature, certain things cannot be explained by purely material causes. If we want to explain such things, I argued, we must look beyond and behind science to God, and this applies not only to the physical world but even more strongly to the human spirit and human experience. The four scientifically inexplicable things I raised were: (a) the origin of the universe; (b) the origin of the laws of nature; (c) the origin of life; and (d) the origin of mind and thought. As recently as 2007 Richard Dawkins on his web site accused me of ‘duplicity' at the debate because, instead of presenting the arguments he had expected, I set out my stall on this higher philosophical ground. I think it rather put him off his stroke — though at the time, I must say, he was quite nice about it all (which may surprise those familiar with his more recent utterances). At various stages in the chapters that follow we are going to revisit my four points, beginning with the origin of the universe itself.
If the God of the Bible does indeed exist, the first consequence we would expect is that the ultimate origin of material things will never be explicable in material terms. In chapters 2 and 3 I fed you with the seeming impossibilities of modern physics, but we must now start looking at some things that really are impossible to explain without invoking non-scientific causes.
Of course, atheists (and even some theists) will immediately cry foul, declaring that just because scientific explanations are not currently available it doesn't mean they never will be. Science is progressive and new discoveries are being made all the time, so that what seems scientifically impossible today may be scientifically explicable tomorrow. I recognize the force of this argument but intend to stand my ground. The claim that, given time, science will explain everything is simply the atheist's version of the God of the gaps. The gaps in our knowledge can be plugged, they say, by future (but as yet unknown) scientific advances. Thus the ‘God of the gaps' is simply replaced by the ‘future science of the gaps' — same gaps, different deity. It's what philosopher of science Karl Popper called ‘promissory materialism.'
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