Saturday, February 3, 2018

John Lennox's "God's Undertaker": Book Review

Front Cover
I read this right after David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. That formidable study in an endnote directed me to the somewhat (until the math and biology kicked in halfway) more accessible God's Undertaker investigating if religious inquiries trump materialist dogma as to if an intelligence (steady there--as agency or impetus rather than design per se?) might be discerned. John Lennox, as a professor of mathematics and fellow in the philosophy of science at Oxford, handles data confidently, adroitly, and commendably with modesty tempered from both and all sides. I did enjoy his witty analogies summing up the various ways science itself calculates the immense odds against our being here at all. And it's not merely the Anthropic Principle all over again.

He nods often to a bete noire of the New Agnostics, Michael Behe. I admit this straightaway, as this will already cause many to write off Lennox. He credits Behe's 'edge of evolution' imagery supporting an originator outside time and space generating evolution as "less random that is often supposed." He denies, however, this is the God of the Gaps yet again. You can read far more context than I can sum up at exactly the halfway point of the book (I refer to my Kindle page 320/638).

A bit later on (61% 391/638), Lennox repeats a helpful analogy that "the message is not derivable" on a printed page "from the physics and chemistry of paper and ink." These are deep waters, but he's discussing that the DNA code sequence's "order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page." The vexing predicament of how to solve "biogenesis" by "a simple-minded appear to Darwinian-like processes" comes down to how the mutating replicator modelled by Dawkins could "even get going in the absence of life" and set in motion natural selection. At 56% 358/638, Lennox quotes Stephen Meyer: 'What needs to be explained is not the origin of order... but the origin of information." This sets up his main focus.

It got a bit easier, and more memorable for me, after his curated array of those witty analogies. The typing monkey argument dating back to Huxley vs. Wilberforce in 1860 Oxford asked whether random apes would eventually peck out one of Shakespeare's poems--or even an entire tome. Lennox avers this is unlikely the provenance as not until 1874 did typewriters hit the market--typical of the author's attentive eye! Regardless, a simulator since 2003's generating a monkey every second hitting a key, with 100 original chimps doubling every few days adds up (in the book's 2009 revision) to the then-current record of "24 consecutive letters from Shakespeare's Henry IV produced in 10^40 monkey years (the age of the universe is estimated at less than 10^11 years)." (68% 438/638)

Other memorable comparisons: the odds of us being here as is=a coin being hit by a shot from across the 20 billion light years "halo"; if coins stacked up across the American continent (or is the nation?) as high as the moon, and this was repeated on a billion more continents, what if a red-marked coin was placed by you at random? And if your friend found it first go when you challenged her, that'd be the odds of what some (if not in this book, curiously) call our own "Goldilocks" just-right universe.

Three-quarters of the way (484/638), Lennox wonders why scientists are able to accept, say, alien presence if SETI received a sequence of signalled prime numbers, yet they deny intelligent agency when it comes to similar deductions gathered in this book from a wide variety of academic experts. "We instinctively infer 'upwards' to an ultimately intelligent causation rather than 'downwards' to chance and necessity." He mentions that in the film Expelled, even Richard Dawkins appears to "have moved his ground towards admitting that design is something that, in principle, could be recognized by science." I looked this up and apparently he and fellow atheists claimed they were duped into appearing in this 2007 documentary. I'd add that Lennox relying on the supposed conversion of Anthony Flew very late in his long life has similarly been criticized for believers taking advantage.

[I am between a 4 and 5 star {on Amazon} but given the Flew incident already happened prior to the revision, this influences my rating down; I am unsure if this revision came before or after the post-Expelled disclaimer by Dawkins and other scientists, so Lennox gets the benefit of the doubt there.]

This is a diligently and incredibly complex summation of the debate about whether "science has buried God." John Lennox stays honest, recognizing his and his colleagues' limitations alongside their expansion of what reason and care have discovered, by the wonder of mathematics and physics. He concludes that "far from science having buried God, not only do the results of science point towards his existence, but the scientific enterprise itself is validated by his existence." (87% 560/638)

I approached this with no preconceptions. I've studied the big names from the opposition of late, and I've (as with Hart and Francis Collins) balanced religious adherents who've accounted for themselves in these debates. The analogies for me sparked my imagination most, but those with more ability in the maths and sciences will want to turn to the data Lennox sifts and scrutinizes. He keeps an approachable tone through dense discussion, he quotes liberally and helpfully for the greater public, and he evaluates evidence and methods from all comers. Worth your attention. (Amazon US 1/23/18)

P.S.This first pdf is a simple outline of the book. This second pdf sums up the documentation, quotation, and summarization page by page. This third pdf is the entire 2009 revised edition.
P.P.S. In Steven Pinker's forthcoming Enlightenment Now, he offers an unanswerable riposte to fine-tuning, which has occurred to me often. What if we're the Powerball lottery winner, and that's enough? We should count our luck instead of our blessings, that we beat the odds against us.

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