Interesting Reading, Science and Religion

Eric Metaxas missed the mark, but Lawrence Krauss missed the dartboard

As the world shakes off the dust of the Holiday Break and gets into 2015, here’s something to catch up on from the last week of last year. On Christmas, Eric Metaxas wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed (here’s the Google search) claiming, in its headline, that scientific findings bolster the evidence that God exists.

Specifically, he cites the fact that, despite constantly finding new planets, our astronomers aren’t finding any new life (Area 51 rumors notwithstanding). Predictably, atheists bristled; Arizona State University Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote an unpublished letter to the editor that sought to debunk Metaxes’s claim.

Krauss correctly answers Metaxas’s first main point – that the known conditions for life to exist on Earth are not the same as the conditions that might give rise to other life forms. (Heck, are we even looking for life forms based on silicon or boron? They found some on Star Trek.) The fact that we haven’t found little green persons is a poor point and Metaxas should have left it alone.

Krauss doesn’t mention it, but even Metaxas’s points about the numerically unlikely evolution of life on Earth don’t hold up well. Those who believe in infinite universes with infinitely various timelines would suggest that, if every single possible outcome is represented, then there would have to be a universe were Earth existed as it does today.

Krauss misses Metaxas’s best point – and, since he buries it so deep, maybe he missed it too:

[T]he odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here… Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? [Emphasis added.]

The key phrase is “talking about existing.” As our scientists explore the universe, they find that things make sense. Early mathematicians discovered that every single circle has the same ratio of its circumference to its diameter (pi). Before he put figs in cookies, Sir Isaac Newton discovered laws of physics. The gravitational force between any two objects in the universe is determined using a constant value, which physicists just pinned down this year (though approximations have been around for centuries). It’s not just that the universe developed as it did, but that it develops according to laws and rules which is somewhat amazing.

Krauss replies that the appearance of design is not design, and he’s right. There’s nothing there to prove that a cosmic Creator wrote the laws. Yet it’s undeniable the laws are there. There’s a parallel there from the Book of Genesis (1:2), too:

[T]he earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

This is what makes the supposed divide between religion and science so fascinating: The themes of the scripture don’t contradict scientific discoveries, nor vice versa. (The literal words may be a different story, but it’s hard to be overly concerned about that when factoring in the difficulty of translation, changes in humanity’s frame of reference, and linguistic changes over multiple millenia.)

Krauss and I may agree that Metaxas didn’t make the strongest case he could have in his Christmas op-ed, but it seems we are coming from different points. The snide derision of “Christian apologists,” implies that anyone who points out the similarity between scientific findings and Christian teachings, or who believes in intelligent design, is some kind of Lyle Lanley huckster peddling a bill of goods rather than someone looking for common ground with secular scientists.

One might call that type of opposition fanatical, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just devout.


4 thoughts on “Eric Metaxas missed the mark, but Lawrence Krauss missed the dartboard

  1. The “snide derision of ‘Christian apologists'” is well-deserved. Christian apologists have a very wide, long-standing and well-deserved reputation for misrepresenting science to make their points. The “similarity between scientific findings and Christian teachings” almost always turns out to be strained, or outright manufactured. And “Intelligent Design” is widely rejected in the scientific community as religiously-motivated pseudoscience. Very few (if any) of them are looking for “common ground”, but rather for excuses to bash science that they don’t like (most commonly Evolution, but increasingly commonly Climate Change).

    1. Obviously, there’s zealotry on both sides, but you’ll need to help me out with some examples of mainstream, anti-science Christian teaching. Adnittedly, my background is chiefly Catholicism, which has been pretty science-friendly for the last few centuries, so I may be missing something from Protestant teaching. But specifically regarding this discussion, my understanding of intelligent design is that it runs along the same lines as Metaxas’s op-ed: it doesn’t dispute any scientific fact, it just questions why the facts are facts. Specifically regarding Krauss, I can’t understand what problem an intellectually honest scientist could have with Metaxas’s thesis. Krauss clearly has a religious point to make for atheism, which is fine, but he needn’t disguise it as a scientific discussion.

      1. 1) Your “understanding of intelligent design” is faulty. It is an exercise in attempting to discredit evolution, by repeating discredited claims against it (most notably Irreducible Complexity and Complex Specified Information) and misrepresenting the basis of science’s understanding of it (e.g. ‘Darwin on Trial’, ‘Icons of Evolution’ and ‘Darwin’s Doubt’). ID itself is an excellent example of Christian apologetics misrepresenting science (as is Young Earth Creationism). Most of its advocates are Evangelicals, but a few are Catholics (most notably Michael Behe).

        2) The Christian apologists most notorious for misrepresenting science are Ray Comfort (along with his protege Kirk Cameron) and William Lane Craig. But they’re only the most blatant and memorable examples.

        3) “Metaxas’s thesis” appears to be merely (a fairly superficial and one-sided treatment of) the widely-disputed Fine Tuning argument. One of the broader sources of criticism of this argument is that it does not reflect Cosmology’s best understanding of the requirements for planet formation and life. As a Cosmologist, Krauss would appear to be well-qualified to offer these criticisms.

        Given that Metaxas is not a scientist, nor has an discernible scientific background whatsoever, it should not be surprising that he is not coming up with a startling new thesis, but is rather putting a fresh coat of paint on this old argument.

  2. 1) Perhaps. I find that the definition of intelligent design seems to shift depending on how rosy one wants to paint the theory. Atheists attack it as barely-disguised creationism, which may not be completely fair but has some ring of truth – it’s a way to accept scientific discoveries and inject openness to the concept of a Creator into science curricula. I see proponents run the gamut from a non-religious theory to, well, barely disguised creationism. Either way, the more that’s certainly not what Metaxas and Krauss are talking about, so I suppose it isn’t particularly relevant here.

    2) My understanding of these folks are that they are young Earth creationists. I haven’t met many. I tend disagree with them, but I don’t think it’s a dangerous viewpoint – but then, viewpoints aren’t necesarily dangerous providing the holder can allow the possibility that he or she is wrong. Given that, it would be a fun discussion, from a religious standpoint. From a scientific standpoint, I’d probably suggest getting a beer and talking about football.

    3) Metaxas got his facts wrong on the requirements for life on any planet – and you’ll note, I agree with Krauss on that point. Metaxas should have, instead, mentioned the requirements for life on Earth. Look, I’m an admitted pop-science fan myself – I don’t delude myself into thinking History’s “The Universe” or anything with Neil deGrasse Tyson is anything more than a sensationalized TV show. If they got into real science, I would probably fall asleep from all the math. But his main thesis is that a lot had to go right for us to be here having this discussion, and all of it happened over several billion years, when there was a lot of time for something to go wrong. With that perspective, no matter why it turned out this way, I feel really lucky to be having this discussion with you rather than having my non-sentient molecules dispersed throughout space.

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