God is a Scientist - Part 1


Summary: After reading Richard Dawkins' excellent contribution to religious and scientific debate, I have come to the (to me surprising) conclusion that he and I agree on much more than I thought we would. I recommend The God Delusion to anyone seeking to further their understanding of life in general and how both religion and science can contribute to life in the fullest sense.

I recently finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and I found it surprisingly refreshing (perhaps because I enjoyed his sarcasm at various religions that I interpreted not to include mine.) Obviously I disagreed with him on issues, but in probably more cases I agreed with his thesis (at least my interpretation of what he said). I was perhaps most surprised with his admission that he does not claim to 'know' that God does not exist, but rather rates the probability of such an existent entity as very low.

Here are some ways that I agree with Richard Dawkins:

  • We both think it is entirely probable that life exists on other planets in the universe someplace.
  • We agree that our existence probably has a significant deal to do with evolution.
  • There is much which masquerades as religion which is nothing more than superstition.
  • A real God would be more pleased with reason and the search for truth than He is with blind obedience.
  • A real God would have a perfect understanding of and be bound by the laws of the universe.
  • A real God would be knowable and understandable.
  • A real God would be a loving God.
After coming to some understanding of the religious environment Dawkins grew up in, I am not surprised that he does not believe in God. If I had grown up in such an environment my reason (my senses) would have told me not to believe, either. Much like Dawkins, Thomas Jefferson saw the prevailing notion of a Christian god as one who was "cruel, capricious, vindictive, unjust." (Dawkins, p. 31) The God that I believe in is none of these, although I find that I am still somewhat influenced by the traditional quasi-superstitious Christian beliefs that abound in our society (i.e. that God scared the crap out of the Israelites at the bottom of Mount Sinai, that the devil has horns and carries a pitchfork, that angels have wings, that when we die we live on a cloud and play a harp all day, that God hates me when I sin, that God might strike me dead if I curse at one more stupid freeway driver.)

My disagreements with Dawkins are more perhaps in degree rather than in substance. He, for example, trusts probability until the evidence is in, while I believe that men exist on earth today to whom some of that evidence has been delivered. To me, faith is not superstition. Any person's beliefs should either be regularly rewarded with evidence or disproven, which in the case of disproof, it was not faith in the first place. We should seldom jump to a swift conclusion that we know that something is (that we have all the evidence) or that it isn't (that it has been categorically disproven). To coin a phrase by a former LDS Church president and prophet: "Faith [and reason] precede the miracle [of knowledge]."

Life on Other Earths

Dawkins states on page 72:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.

The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ teaches that indeed life does exist elsewhere in our universe, and that it has a purpose:

That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God. (Doctrine and Covenants 76:24)
How it got there, we probably disagree on, but the likelihood of human existence on other worlds is a point we can agree on.


Evolution as a Contributing Factor to Existence


Dawkins states on page 73 that

Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how Godlike they may seem when we encounter them, they didn't start that way.

For me to say that I know that the above is a false statement would be worse than foolhardy. In fact, it is a statement with which I quite agree.

Many Christians, and even some Mormons, are troubled by the prospect of evolution. Interestingly, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has (as far as I know) never taken an official stand on evolution. Former Church President David O. McKay studied the works of Charles Darwin, and had some very interesting things to say about evolution. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism writes:

Although McKay never made a public statement affirming his acceptance of biological evolution, he was sympathetic to that viewpoint... He kept his views private...for a simple reason..."The thing you need to remember about evolution is that the Lord has never revealed anything about the matter."

I guess that leaves me in the same realm as Dawkins, speculating as to the probability of something for which no revelatory evidence has been given by God--for or against. And I am quite comfortable with that. There is no reason to be offended by--nor to religiously campaign for or against--a subject on which God has not spoken.

McKay, interestingly, also said:

[Evolution] claims: "Man is a creature of development; that he has come up through uncounted ages from an origin that is lowly." Why this vast expenditure of time and pain and blood? Why should he come so far if he is destined to go no farther? ...Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued, slow progress."

In (my) other words: It is entirely possible that life began from a single cell. But if it continues to evolve, why would it not eventually evolve into something perfect, which we can call God?

The LDS Church teaches that:

As man is God once was.
As God is, man may become.

Evolution seems to me to support this thought very elegantly.

As I have written elsewhere, it is difficult to contemplate that if there is a God, where did he come from? Equally puzzling is if the universe came into existence by a big bang, where did the stuff bang from? Oh well. But I think we'll find out some day. Dawkins agrees that "one day we may know the answer." (p. 48)

The following topics will be discussed in upcoming posts in this series:

Superstition Masquerading as Religion
God is a God of Reason
God Understands and Follows Nature's Laws
God is a Loving God

Comments

  1. I think you would enjoy reading many of the posts on the LDS Science Review blog. Its host often explores evolutionary theory in light of LDS theology.

    I think that the Christian campaign against evolution is more of a complex political issue than a scientific issue. Some idealogues from the Darwinist school of thought use evolution as a cudgel to beat people of faith over the head, suggesting that it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist. Idealogues on the other side seek to respond. Each side perceives the other side as a threat to truth.

    I think what you are describing from Dawkins' book is that these two parties are largely speaking past each other. Of perhaps they are simply building straw men of charicatures their opponents' most extreme positions. I believe that the largest cohort of people have beliefs somewhere between these two extremes. And in that vast middle ground, there are many points where agreement can be found.

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  2. Great post Frank.
    When I was in high school I had a class that had about 12 students in it. It was an MATC class, to explain the few number of students, most LDS. We had about 3 people in there that were very liberal, also LDS, and we debated about different things all the time. Evolution came up one afternoon and most the class balked at the idea that it even existed, and some even said that you couldn't be a good Latter Day Saint if you believed so. The more liberal of the class, and me to many people's surprise, just said the same thing that you have said in your post about it: "Why not?" "How not?"
    Anyway, just a little story of how most Christians, including LDS, don't listen, and to take it further, don't care about what other ideas are out there. Other ideas that are very possible.

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  3. Interesting!

    I think at that point in my life I would have unfortunately been with most of your class had I been there.

    We get some of our dogmatic ideas from I don't know where, but they sure can affect us in counterproductive ways.

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  4. Scott,

    I haven't had time to look at the LDS Science blog yet, (nor the cafehayek that you recommended in the "China" thread) but I look forward to getting some time to look them over.

    Thanks.

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  5. Frank, you have more of a sense of humor than I originally thought.

    I think the people who attack "evolution" are really attacking something different: Free thought. What Darwin really represents is the scientific method, the idea that knowledge is derived through observation and the collection of data and logical analysis. People who are oriented toward authoritarianism do not want anyone to be able to go around observing and collecting data and developing theories. They want people to blindly follow the dictates of authority figures. They call it "faith" but it's really obedience.

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  6. Elizabeth,

    Good point. I completely agree.

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  7. Frank, I disagree. First, Elizabeth said Darwin was about the scientific method, I disagree. The scientific method is about observation and logical analysis but that is not what evolution is about. It is about theory and conjecture. How can you observe and analyze phenomena that occurred several million years ago? Research on evolution can, at best, say what possibly could have happened. It tells us nothing about what did happen. Second, I've worked in the scientific community for most of my professional carrier and can say that it is based on authoritarianism. Evolution is true because it is accepted by scientists, end of discussion, end of thinking. Scientists are the greatest authority on earth today. You can win any argument by quoting (or misquoting) a scientific study. By blindly accepting the opinions of scientists, we turn our thinking over to experts. When we stop thinking for ourselves we loose the ability to be free. That’s my problem with evolution, not whether it is accurate, but that dissenting opinion is not allowed. The discussion of intelligent design in school would be a great improvement because whether or not it is correct or not at least we would be talking. That is if students were allowed to discuss their ideas in class, which of course they’re not. Their responsibility is to memorize the correct answer and parrot it back on the test. What could be more authoritarian that that?

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  8. I think anonymous may have misinterpreted my main point, which was that I don't believe evolution is the real issue creationists are troubled by.

    As for scientists being dogmatic or wrong, of course they are dogmatic and wrong at times. But it also seems to me that science develops new technologies and medicines that actually help people, and new theories that contradict old theories all the time. Look at all the different theories that have come up in astronomy and physics in recent years, for example. Meanwhile religious belief hasn't changed much in hundreds of years...so who's more rigid? I admit it, I prefer science to religion.

    As for "How can you observe and analyze phenomena that occurred several million years ago" there are many ways. Have you ever been to a museum and looked at dinosaur bones and other fossils? Examined DNA? Peered through a telescope? Are you even aware that when you look through a telescope, you are seeing light that was generated many years ago? For someone who works in a scientific community, you certainly asked an ignorant question there. Please share with us your educational background.

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  9. Elizabeth,

    Good point. Ironically, I'm reading "Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years" that uses historical data from ice cores, tree rings, etc. to postulate that the sun has nearly everything to do with global warming.

    But I do agree with anonymous that a discussion of intelligent design is warranted in public, to include public schools.

    By the way, the idea that science and religion go hand in hand is the thesis of my part 2 of "God is a scientist", so I support both.

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  10. The problem with "intelligent design" is that it isn't a scientific theory. Of course evolution could be debated as a scientific theory, perhaps in opposition to other scientific theories (although I'm not aware of opposite scientific theories to the theory of evolution) but "intelligent design" doesn't even fit into that category. It would be like trying to debate plate tectonics with the notion that the earth is flat. Plate tectonics is a scientific theory (it may be accepted as fact by now, I'm not sure)whereas the notion that the earth is flat is not a theory; it is simply an inaccurate belief that was based on peoples' limited ability to travel hundreds of years ago and hence their lack of ability to observe that the earth was round.

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  11. Elizabeth,

    First, if your assertion is that most religionists have historically attacked free thought I agree. My assertion is that religionists don’t have the corner on that market. Limiting the speciation debate to evolution is an attack on free thought. Second, if religion is so monolithic, why are there so many different churches? By saying that only one group is dogmatic, monolithic and dangerous to free thought looses sight of the real problem. My belief is that humans are dogmatic and have a dangerous tendency to force their thought on others. Scientists and religionists are both equally dangerous because they are equally human. Third, not proving that something is false does not prove that it is true. The scientific method makes a hypothesis and seeks to prove it false. By definition, science doesn’t prove that anything is true. Fourth, science proves things false by producing and reproducing experiments using observable data. This is the process of falsification. My statement that we can’t observe things that happened millions of years ago was in context to the question of speciation. Forgive me if I did not account for light that is millions of years old that we see in telescopes. I don’t see, however, how light waves are germane to the topic of speciation. I hold that while there are data that support the possibility of interspecies evolution, the theory that all species are descended in a grand array from a single progenitor is not falsifiable. You have fossils that look like they go from lower species to higher ones, but what gives the fossils a hierarchical relationship? The theory of evolution does. Theoretically these supposedly related fossils could have descended from a single progenitor, from several main progenitors or each could have descended from its own progenitor. The data itself can’t prove any of the theories true and they don’t prove any of them false. Fifth, intelligent design is not like your example of the earth being flat. If I hypothesize that the earth is flat it can (and has) be observed, tested and proven false. The flat earth theory is a scientific theory that has been proven false. Intelligent design and evolution are theories that cannot at the current time be proven false. They are non-falsifiable and therefore non-scientific. Sixth, it appears from your writings (I’m guessing here) that you are equating scientific with true and non-scientific with false. I am not using the terms in that way. Science is a method to bring us closer to truth, it is useful, it is powerful, but the fact that it has become synonymous with truth tells me that its influence in society may be greater than it logically deserves.

    Freedom of thought is vital for freedom I think that we both agree on this. You see its greatest threat in this instance from religionists, and I see its greatest threat in this instance from a school system that would mandate one theory while excluding others. Second, because of its power people accept science dogmatically. This is troublesome and I think its power is greater than that of religion. If you for example asked a thousand people if God exists, or what he (she for some) is like you would get a myriad of answers. But ask what one plus one equals and almost to a person (unless you have theoretical mathematicians in the group) they will say two. The major tenants of math and science have become universally accepted without a thought to the assumptions or limitations involved. Elizabeth, thank you for this discussion, but as enjoyable as it has been, it wouldn’t be allowed in school. That bodes poorly for freedom.

    Shane

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  12. Shane, you've imputed a number of statements to me that I never made.

    By the way--I'm interested in hearing your alternate answer(s) to the question 1+1=?

    by all means, let's debate that question! I'm sure that the concept that 1+1=3 can be shown to be equally valid

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  13. Elizabeth,

    My responses came from my interpretations of your sayings. If I put words in your mouth I am truly sorry. My interest in evolution has more to do with how our thinking (or lack thereof) affects our social forms than the theory itself. However, my problems with the theory include: 1) gradual change seems incompatible with survival of the fittest because when an animal is half way evolved between species (say half wing/half foot) it is less survivable not more, 2) the probability of unguided evolution creating something useful is very low, as exampled by the probability of a clock assembling or 100 monkeys typing randomly on typewriters producing a Shakespeare play. It is all possible, but the improbability of it all is a huge obstacle for me. 3) From my limited observations of hybridization, species seem very resistant to combination. 4) Evolution accounts for speciation of life, but not its creation. 5) Finally, I believe (and belief is the correct word here) that matter has agency and chooses to obey the voice of God. Kind of like the old story in Genesis. In stating this I’m am relying on epistemologies in addition to reason and empiricism. I think that revelation, beauty, and authority are all acceptable epistemologies and that I should used them all in seeking for truth not just some. I also recognize that I can’t prove them to others who have not had my same experiences. I want to make it clear that I am a seeker of truth; I don’t have a monopoly on it. I therefore reserve the right to change my opinion in the future. I also try to recognize that others have opinions that I should respectfully consider. If I have been less than considerate of your opinions in our discussions I apologize. I realize that I too am human and therefore subject to human frailties.

    Concerning 1 + 1 equaling two, it is based on the assumption that 1 = 1. In the material world 1 of something never equals 1 of something else. 1 = 1 only in the world of the mind. Plato would argue that reality only exists in the form of idea and that all material things are temporary copies of that reality. The same is true for Euclidian geometry. I disagree with Plato on this on. Since math is based on idea as reality, it doesn’t predict the material world with complete accuracy. Thus when engineers use math they have to use fudge factors and corrections. A great read on the original assumptions of arithmetic is Nicomachus of Gerasa. The assumptions of geometry can be found in Euclid's Elements. Both can be found in the Great Books Series. Why should I be so nit picky? Tocqueville in volume two of Democracy in America discusses this in his first chapter. Historically Americans thought for themselves. Currently, much of our thinking is dictated by experts. Independent thinking leads to freedom, while dependence leads to slavery.

    Shane

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  14. Shane. While I see your point about dinosaur bones, evolution, as you well know, doesn't simply rest on the classification of dinosaur bones but on a wealth of other evidence including DNA analysis, as one example. All of which when put together makes the Theory of Evolution one of tht strongest in science. Of course, there are areas within the theory that is debated, after all no good evolutionary scientist would dare claim that they know it all, but the debate is more about detail in particualr areas rather than about the actual overall theory itself.

    I also agree with your point about how even science can have an authoritarian aspect, especially when someone challenges a long cherished theory. However, in science, if the challenge is based on genuine evidence, it will eventually prevail over the theory it threatens. That is the magic and true value of the scientific method, i.e. the evidence decides the outcome.

    ID on the other hand has produced no scientific findings at all and all of its claims, such as with regards to irreducable complexity concerning the falggellum or the blood clotting mechanism, have been shown to be very wrong, nowhere more publicly so than during the Dover trial. IF ID ever produces any genuine scientific findings, instead of political campaigns to teach it as science, real scientists will look at the evidence and decide based on the evidence.

    Thus, until ID can produce any genuine science it has no place in the science classroom. By all means debate it in philosophy, or a similar type of class, as a belief that some people hold, alongside beliefs such as creationism for instance. But please, don't try and con people that it is science in any way shape or form.

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  15. I agree with many of the thoughts you've expressed regarding Dawkins' book. The Mormon understanding of God is quite compatible with the idea that complex beings (such as gods) come into being through long evolutionary processes.

    I'm posting thoughts about the book, chapter by chapter, to my blog. Here are the first two entries:

    http://transfigurism.org/community/blogs/lincoln_cannon/archive/2007/10/30/3670.aspx

    http://transfigurism.org/community/blogs/lincoln_cannon/archive/2007/11/03/3693.aspx

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