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About this episode:
Richard Dawkins is emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and author of the best-selling atheist book ‘The God Delusion’.
Francis Collins is the former head of the Human Genome Project and National Institutes of Health, currently serving as Science Advisor to the President and author of ‘The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief’.
They discuss their journeys towards and away from faith, Covid, genetics, evolution, the origin of the universe, evil, morality and God in a wide ranging conversation with Justin Brierley.
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More from this season:
- Episode 2: Conversion, Culture and the Cross: Are we ready to believe in God again?
- Episode 3: Is there a Master Behind our Mind?
- Episode 4: Rationality, Religious Experience and the Case for God
- Episode 5: Robots, Transhumanism and Life Beyond Earth
- Episode 6: Are Millennials & Gen Z ready to believe in God?
Justin Brierley (JT), Richard Dawkins (RD) and Francis Collins (FC)
JB: Hello and welcome to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable, with me Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation brings the biggest thinkers together to discuss the biggest questions in science, faith and philosophy. I’m joined on today’s show by Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins, to talk about biology, belief and Covid. Richard Dawkins is emeritus professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University; he’s a world-renowned scientist – his book The Selfish Gene, is a classic of evolutionary biology. But Richard of course is well known also for his critiques of religion as an atheist; his book The Good Delusion, was a bestseller when it was published, back in I think 2005. And his most recent books include Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide.
Francis Collins is also a renowned geneticist, who oversaw the human genome project and was until recently director of the National Institutes of Health in the USA, leading their response to Covid, and just recently been appointed as acting science advisor to the President. Francis is a committed Christian; his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Provides Evidence for Belief, explained why he believes God and science do go together. He’s also the founder of BioLogos, an organisation that seeks to do the same.
So today we’ll be looking at the different journeys of these two men – why two eminent scientists come to such different conclusions about God, and looking at all the questions raised by science, atheism, Christianity and Covid, in todays world. So Richard and Francis, welcome along to the programme! I’m really privileged to have you both on the same call and to be able to do this with you; it’s been a real dream come true bringing you together, so thank you both for being here. Let’s just start though with reflections on… well, just about two years now in this pandemic. How has that impacted your… I’ll start with you first Richard – what’s been your experience as we’ve come through this time?
RD: My personal experience has been that I’ve been able to get on with a lot more work; I’ve written two books while being in lockdown. And so naturally I’m not pleased about people being ill, and I’ve eagerly taken up every offer of vaccination that I could do, and I’ve tried so far as I can influence anybody else to actually persuade other people to get vaccinated as well. I’m gobsmacked by the truly idiotic resistance to vaccination that seems to come from a kind of political, ideological stance. But apart from that, no, I’ve been working hard under lockdown and really quite enjoyed it.
JB: Are you returning to something a bit more like normal? I know that you’ve been doing a few more in-person events and that sort of thing recently?
RD: Yes, I did a big event in London two days ago, with a thousand people, and many of them were wearing masks in the audience, some of them were not. And then the next day I did a podcast live with somebody. So yes, we’re starting to emerge a bit. The British government is emerging I think a bit too fast, in my opinion – they’ve relaxed all lockdown restrictions just last week I think. I think political pressure to do that – and I’m not an expert, I mean, Francis may say something about that – seems to me to be premature.
JB: Well, we’re recording this – this won’t go out at the time that we’re recording, so the situation may have changed a little by the time this is broadcast – but Francis, I mean obviously you’ve been very much at the forefront until very recently of the Covid response. And responding to what Richard had to say there, I guess you’ve seen that as well up close and personal, the politicisation of these issues that can often happen.
FC: Absolutely. I would say – and I hope history will take note of this – that the scientific communities response to this worst pandemic in more than 100 years was absolutely stunning in its ability to marshal the resources to bring the technology forward. This whole MRNA vaccine approach, which was developed really over about 25 years, was just pushed forward at breath-taking pace, and we coordinated that from my role at NIH with industry, with academia and with the regulatory agencies, and to get those vaccines approved with 95% efficacy, in 11 months, was well beyond any expectation that any of us would have tried to claim.
On top of that, what we were able to do with therapeutics – although most of them turned out not to be successful, we needed to know that too – as well as the diagnostic testing, where NIH basically got into the business of being a venture-capital organisation to get a lot of these technology platforms scaled up and delivered so that now finally testing is widely available. All of those things – and I’ve just got to say although it was exhausting, and I don’t think I’ve worked this hard since I was an intern in medicine – to see the way in which people came together and insisted on rigour and everything, was breath taking.
What was not so breath taking was the response, and certainly when it came to vaccines, and Richard already mentioned this. I didn’t really anticipate that there would be such widespread resistance to taking advantage of lifesaving interventions. To have 50 million people in the United States still resisting vaccines because they have been misled by conspiracies and just frank lies, I didn’t think in such a technologically advanced country that that would be such a huge thing, and it just shows you how everything has been contaminated by politics.
JB: Yes. Do you feel like we’re on the home straight now, as it were, Francis? Do you see a way out?
FC: I’m a little bit reluctant to claim that, because it seems like we heard that last summer and then Delta came along. And it looked like maybe we were getting past Delta and thne Omicron came along. Are we really so confident there’s not another variant out there waiting for us, that might be sufficiently different from what we’ve seen so far, that our immune response won’t be as good as we’d like? I hope maybe we’re…
RD: Darwin would not be confident anyway.
FC: Well, then I’m with Darwin on this! But you know Richard, if you wanted a lesson about how evolution works – the whole story of Sars-CoV-2 is breath taking in its detail.
RD: Yes, absolutely.
JB: I’m sure there will be many a science book written just from the biological perspective on the lessons this has taught us, in years to come. But let’s start with your stories, as I promised we would. And I would love to talk about the science both of Covid and generally genetics and the evolutionary story, before we get to the questions of faith that we’re going to talk about too. But I mean, as I said Richard, you’ve been well known as an atheist as much as a scientist in recent decades. At what point did you sort of come to the settled belief that God and science essentially don’t mix – was that something you sort of decided fairly early on in your life?
RD: About sixteen, I suppose. My lingering religious faith had been based upon my wonder at the natural world – the beauty, the elegance of the biological world. And so I retained a belief in some kind of Creator, because I felt that that level of complexity needed a designer. And then when I finally understood the full magnitude of the Darwinian explanation, then that dropped away, and I decided that there was no need for that – not only no need for it, but that it was actually as a counter to what I took evolutionary science to be about.
JB: And so that view, I mean, essentially would you say that it was your science that sort of led you further down the path towards a kind of view of atheism, that there is ultimately no God?
RD: Yes I would say that. In the case of my friend Christopher Hitchens, it was a bit different – I think in his case it was more of a political-moral reason. And I was always less interested in that, than in the scientific aspect.
JB: And in a sense, what prompted you in the end to turn from primarily being someone who talked about science and published books in that area, to obviously what you’ve been very well known for in the last fifteen years or so, with The God Delusion – what was it that prompted you to want to really nail your colours to that mast?
RD: Well, it’s a minor part of what I’ve been doing; virtually all my books now are about science, and that’s what I would wish to be remembered for. And then I think it was probably… I was not very happy about the election of George W Bush, although nowadays with hindsight, compared to Trump, it sort of… I’ve felt, you know, ‘come back George W – all is forgiven!’ But it was the feeling that there was a kind of religious takeover in a wa; I mean, he wasn’t really that religious, but that’s what it felt like at the time. My literary agent John Brockman, who had been discouraging me from writing a book about religion, he said, ‘you can’t sell that in America’. Then after George W Bush had been in power for a while, he said, ‘now’s the time to write it’ – and so I did.
JB: Francis, remind us of your story briefly. You became a Christian as an adult, so just explain the circumstances of that?
FC: Sure. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I was also pretty convinced there was no need for God at all. I had not been raised in a home where faith was considered relevant, and I went on to graduate school and quantum mechanics and enjoyed the experience of trying to use mathematics to understand the universe, and felt there was no need for anything else beyond that. My comeuppance – if you want to call it that – was going then to medical school, because I had this urge to see how science could apply to the human condition in beneficial ways, and I was really excited about DNA in that regard. And then I began to realise there were questions that science wasn’t helping me with, like: ‘why am I here anyway?’ ‘What happens after you die?’ ‘Is there a God?’ ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ And I began to realise I was a bit impoverished in the ability to approach those things.
I set about therefore trying to understand how people had answered those questions, and quickly found myself in theological quarters, and thought I would be able to shoot down all their arguments. To my surprise – and particularly influenced by the writings of C S Lewis – I realised that my arguments were actually pretty superficial. And ultimately over a two-year period, with a lot of kicking and screaming, came to the conclusion that faith was more rational than atheism, for me. And ultimately that faith had to have an anchor, and that anchor became the God of Abraham. And ultimately I recognised the person of Jesus Christ as a historical figure about which we know a great deal, as an answer to a lot of the problems that I otherwise couldn’t solve. And reading the words of Matthew 5 and 6 – the Sermon on the Mount – recognised there the kind of truth about how to live that I wanted to embrace. So I became a Christian at twenty-seven and I’ve been there ever since.
JB: And obviously in today’s discussion, you’re going to be talking about the reasons for that and the way it intersects with your science, but it certainly hasn’t stopped you being great friends with many non-religious folk. In fact, I wanted to mention that you do have a shared connection with Christopher Hitchens, who you mentioned earlier Richard, because I was reminded just this past week that you were quite involved, certainly in his final months, in helping him medically, during his cancer diagnosis. Just tell us a little bit about that, because I stumbled across as well that beautiful tribute you did to him at his memorial service as well. What were the circumstances of you coming to know him in that way?
FC: Well I got to know Hitch before his illness. We were involved, as you might imagine, on opposite sides of this question about whether one can be a scientist and a believer in God. And he was a remarkably effective debater, and so anybody who’s been on the other side of a conversation with Hitch, knows what it’s like to have the verbal assaults that are both really effective and really funny. And I’ve always kind of thought this is a good thing; iron sharpens iron, debating a little bit with Hitch – mostly privately – was actually helpful to sort of figuring out my own weaknesses, in terms of arguments about faith. But we became friends, and I would go and drop by his apartment, and we would drink wine and he would drink scotch and we would discuss everything from faith to George Orwell to Thomas Jefferson – whatever else was on his mind. An incredible mind he had.
And then he got sick and he was suddenly diagnosed with already very advanced oesophageal cancer; and I was glad to try and help, to see if there was something that could buy some time. And I think we did buy him some time – actually with some genomic analysis of his cancer, to figure out what would be the most effective therapy. And perhaps he was with us for an extra six or nine months. And I was quite close to him during that time. He never wavered – lest anyone say otherwise; he was an atheist. But he was a gracious friend to me and I think we both enjoyed that experience, even though we disagreed rather deeply on life’s most important question: Is there a God?
JB: Any thoughts on that as well from yourself Richard? I know that Hitchens in a sense was quite interesting in that way – he really did actually genuinely have friends across the aisle, despite his, you know, strongly held positions himself.
RD: I was aware Francis of what you were doing for him, and on behalf of people, as it were, on my side of the aisle, we felt really grateful to you for what you were doing.
JB: Just looking at the atheist movement that, in a sense, yourself and Hitchens and others have represented – the so-called new atheism over the last 15 years or so, Richard. And you may not wear that badge yourself, I’m sure, but that movement itself has almost changed quite a bit since Hitchens was with us – almost feels to me like the secular humanist movement itself has undergone a number of splits, and we’re seeing the same kinds of political issues and so on dividing it, as we’re seeing, you know, that affect Francis and others. I mean, what’s your feeling about where that’s gone? And I know that you yourself have sort of been cancelled by some people, and that sort of thing. What do you think of the movement as it were, if you can call it a movement, that Hitchens and yourself were part of and where it sort of exists today in that way?
RD: You know Justin, I’m not that interested in that kind of thing. I’m interested in what’s true – not how many people think this or how many people think that. If there are trends in society towards this movement – who cares? Let’s talk about what’s true. Can we talk about science – I was hoping we might begin by talking about that…
JB: Absolutely, let’s talk about the science. I just want to let you guys go for it really, because I know that you have some questions that you wanted to ask, Richard. I mean, let’s just lay it out clearly at the beginning. You’re essentially in the same ballpark, when it comes to your views on the evolutionary history of earth. So that’s not, as it were, in dispute in this conversation today. It’s more the consequences of that, and whether there’s a grounding for God. But feel free to take it away Richard…
RD: I would enjoy that, because I don’t often get a chance to talk to a really distinguished geneticist like this, and I’d like to take advantage of it. Let me quote… I’m interested in GWAS, which I think is something that Francis knows a lot about and certainly I’ve got in my next book which is called The Genetic Book of the Dead. I’ve got a quote from Francis, which I hereby ask permission to use. It says: ‘what you do for a genome-wide association study is find a lot of people who have the disease, a lot of people who don’t, and who are otherwise well matched. And then, searching across the entire genome using SNPs, you try to find a place where there is a consistent difference’… and then there’s a little bit more to the quote. What I want to ask is this: could this same technique be applied to different species in the following sense. Suppose you take… well, first of all, the fact that we know that certain genes do the same kind of thing in widely different species – I think our standing example is the Pax-6 gene and the equivalent gene in drosophila. So both in mammals and in drosophila, this gene makes eyes. And if you transplant this gene from a mouse into a drosophila, it’ll make it into a drosophila’s elbow – it’ll make an eye there; not a mouse eye, but a drosophila eye. So these genes are readily transportable, and they have the same effect. Now, here’s my question: suppose you were to take a whole list of mammals which are, say, aquatic, and another list of mammals which are dry land animals. Might there be a gene in common that all the aquatic ones have in common, that the terrestrial ones don’t? And could you use a version of GWAS to locate whatever it is that all aquatic mammals have in common, that terrestrial animals don’t – and do the same thing for desert animals versus tree-dwelling animals, that kind of thing?
FC: Well that’s an interesting question. Yeah, it wouldn’t be exactly GWAS – it would basically be a comparison of complete genome sequences of all these species, to see if there is a shared featured of aquatic mammals, that is not present in the others. The challenge I can imagine here, it’s going to quickly get you into what is the evolutionary relationship of those animals. Because if most of the aquatic animals are descended from a common ancestor, that’s different than the land animals, you’re going to get a lot of false positives.
RD: Well, ok. I mean, normally we’re using molecular data – genetic data – to determine which animals are closely related. And so for example you know, it’s how we know that whales and hippos are related. This is kind of the opposite – it’s trying to remove the phylogenetic – the evolutionary relationship, and then leave only the functional relationship – functional resemblance. Do all tree-dwelling animals – whether they’re primates or squirrels or tree shrews or sloths or koalas – have something in common, which as it were labels them as living up trees? So you have to subtract out the taxonomic relationship between them, and leave yourself only with the ecological, functional relationship?
FC: Right. I think that’s potentially something one could do – again, you’d choose carefully what species you’re comparing, so that you don’t get confounded by their evolutionary relationships. And I don’t know what you would turn up. I would bet you wouldn’t find a gene… you might find a pathway that involves maybe the co-opting of genes that were doing something else, but now they’re all engaged in this new activity. Because I think Richard you’d agree, evolution is really good at reinventing uses of existing genes. When you go back to the fly, you pretty much have everything you need, but you just figure out how to put it together in different ways. That would be an interesting experiment. It’s possible – somewhere out there, there’s an evolutionary genomics expert that’s doing that sort of thing, but I haven’t seen it.
RD: Ok, well that’s my question, thank you for the answer!
JB: Thank you. And I was fascinated to listen along, and I look forward to the book that may include such information in the end, Richard. Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk genes. And you both believe in obviously a long evolutionary history, and the way in which that genetic makeup that makes up you, me and every living thing on the earth has, if you like, a point of origin in the past. Obviously for you, Richard, this is part of the reason you are an atheist, presumably – you know, you said that Darwin made it possible to be a fulfilled atheist, because he mapped out the way in which that process of natural selection could gradually bring about the kinds of complex organisms that for a long time people had assumed must be the work of a Creator and so on. And so I’ll start with you Francis, for where you go with that. Because I’m sure that’s an argument you’ve heard many times, of why God should be, as it were, relegated – that there’s no need now for the God explanation, when it comes to the area of science that you’ve spent your life devoted to, and yet here you are, a very committed Christian. So just map out for us why, for you, the fact that there is an evolutionary explanation for the development of complex life, does not necessarily exclude God in the process?
FC: Well it actually makes me even more in awe of the Creator, but let me explain. The argument from design, which Richard talked about which had impressed him when he was younger than sixteen, and then sort of fell apart in the face of the evolutionary explanation – I guess that argument from design has never really grabbed me. Maybe because I was already deep into the science before I started asking these questions about faith. But certainly, evolution is incredibly powerful as an explanatory science, to understand the amazing diversity of creatures that we see around us and that we know have lived in the past. But I don’t see how that in any way excludes the possibility that there was a plan; it’s just for me, that step is further back.
And if God had the intention of ultimately putting forward on this small blue planet somewhere on the outer edge of a galaxy, creatures with big brains, who would have conversations like this and who might even be interested in whether this is something beyond what they can see materially – wouldn’t evolution have been a very elegant way to do so? And if God who’s, in my sense, outside of space and time, and therefore doesn’t require a way to have been begun, used this process, and knew full well how it would happen because of this ability to be outside of time – I think that’s just an amazing concept that brings together what I find to be really important questions about the something versus nothing, and the meaning of life, together with what I know as a scientist.
Because my prior for whether there is a God was not zero – it was like, maybe. And as I began to look around – and I wrote a bit about this in The Language of God, and the Biologos website has lots more about it – there were in fact evidences, not proofs – we’re not given that. But evidences even from science itself, that something seems interesting here about the nature of the universe, as if it – as Freeman Dyson once said – almost knew we were coming.
JB: Yes. And in that sense it’s a sort of holistic picture that draws you obviously to that conclusion, not just looking at the DNA or one particular thing. I mean Richard again, you’ll be familiar with these sorts of arguments as well – how would you respond?
RD: Well Francis started to stray into the more difficult physics – the cosmology, the origin of all things there. But let’s just stick to evolution for the moment. I think if I were God and I wanted to create life – maybe even human life, which is part of the expectation of the religious person – I think I would not use such a wasteful, long drawn out process – I think I’d just go for it. I mean, why would you choose natural selection, which has the possibly unfortunate property that it could have come about without you? Why would God have chosen a mechanism to unfold his design… he chose the very mechanism which actually makes him superfluous. Basically he could have started it off and said… I mean, God the experimenter, another matter – if his aim was an experiment to see I wonder what would happen if I set up a primeval self-replicating molecule and then leave it to see what happens. That would be a really interesting experiment, and if God’s an experimenter, I sympathise with that. But if he wanted to make complex life, I think I wouldn’t choose that astonishingly wasteful, profligate – cruel, actually – way of doing it; natural selection is cruel.
JB: Well cruel from a human perspective, in a sense, if you put a value on it, I suppose…
RD: Well, yes, we are human. And the suffering which comes from the fact that it’s all about competition; it’s all about evading starvation, the ones that die and the ones that starve to death or are eaten by predators, consumed by disease – it’s not a benign process at all. But that’s not a very important argument; it just struck me as Francis as talking.
JB: I’ll allow Francis to answer it in just one moment; we’re just going to go to a quick break and we’ll be back. We’re talking about evolution, faith, atheism, Covid as well I’m sure we’ll come to in the course of our conversation. So pleased to be joined today by Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins here on the Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable, and we’ll be back in just a moments time.
JB: So just in that last section Francis, Richard saying – and I think it’s a very common question – if God were going to create life, why this process? Which on the face of it, takes so long, is so cruel and wasteful in many ways and, you know, arguably Richard says, God is somewhat superfluous – so it’s hardly as though it’s providing great evidence for a designer anyway. So yes, where do you go with that?
FC: Well those are all really appropriate questions and I wrestle with some of those myself. Pointing out a couple of things though. One is that I don’t think the fact that it took a long time should trouble us particularly from God’s perspective. Yes, it’s a long time for us, but again, in this view where God is pretty much outside of space and time, it’s a blink of an eye, with the full knowledge of when the outcome would occur. Also I guess Richard, one of the things that I have come really to appreciate about this model, is it says that God is really interested in order.
God is not so excited about the idea of just snap the fingers and then here we all are. God wanted a universe that was going to follow these elegant, mathematical laws, which by the ways, are one of those signposts that I see of an intelligence beyond the universe – Einstein would have agreed with that part as well. And intelligence that also wanted it to be interesting – we could get into those constants that determine the behaviour of matter and energy, that seem to be just in this precise place to make something interesting happen. So if you want to accept the idea that there is some intelligence behind here, it’s a pretty darn good mathematician and physicist, and seems really interested in laws of nature and natural order. And so if you’re going to go that way and yet you still are interested in Richard Dawkins coming into being – well, evolutions are pretty darned impressive way to get there. Yes, I get it from our human perspective – not the way we would have done it – but I’m always a little careful when I say, well, God should have done this differently because I would have had a better plan…
RD: Yes, it’s a small point really. I think for me a bigger point is not to stress the fact that God is not necessary – although I think that he is not necessary – but that’s what most people say. I want to go further than to say he’s not necessary. Somehow he really, really gets in the way of the fact that the Darwinian explanation so beautifully does away with the need for any kind of top-down design. The Darwinian explanation is a powerful antidote to the feeling that we all have because we’re human, that when things are complicated they need to be put together by somebody in a top-down design kind of way. And if you really understand that the evolutionary process starts with simplicity, and builds up to complexity and elegance and beauty and strong illusion of design, then to smuggle design in again, at the beginning, is to betray the entire enterprise which you’ve spent so long working out and building up. The enterprise has been; we now understand that you don’t actually need a designer to explain complexity – it really can come about.
That’s a beautiful idea – the idea that complexity and the illusion of design can happen according to the unguided laws of physics. I said, ‘can happen’. Now what you’ve established is it can happen. To suddenly say, ‘oh well we better have God in any way’, is a betrayal of that whole argument. So I want to say that design comes in late in the universe; I fully expect that elsewhere in the universe there may be creatures far more intelligent and complex than we are, that they too will have come about by the same process of gradual incremental step-by-step climbing up the ramp change. It is a betrayal of everything that Darwinism seems to me stands for, to smuggle in a Creator. Once you’ve got rid of him – then let’s just bring him back because it feels good to bring him back, that kind of thing.
FC: Well it’s a lot more than feels good; I think it can be articulated as a rational choice. But basically Richard, I’m arguing not that the evolutionary process is incapable of generating complexity; I think it totally is. You and I are in the same place here, as far as the odds of…
RD: There’s no doubt about that, yes…
FC: Right. But you said that, well, it’s happened just because of the laws of physics. I want to take this back to that step – where did those come from?
RD: Well let’s get to that then, because you keep getting to that and I believe that’s a very profound… I mean, if somebody were going to convince me of the need for a God, it would be there; it would be not in my own field of biology. And I’ve found… I’ve read The Language of God and indeed I re-read it today; I read it first when it came out. I love your song by the way – that’s really nice, in the audio version. I listened to the audio version today – I don’t know whether you have Justin…
JB: I haven’t I’m afraid, I’ll have to include it in the programme at the end or something, so people can hear it…
RD: I found the initial C S Lewis part about the moral argument really profoundly unconvincing. When you get onto the physics…
FC: We should get to that then!
RD: Ok. When you come on later to the origin of the physical constants – now that’s getting warm; that’s getting close to a good argument – unlike the morality one.
JB: Is that mainly because it is essentially a scientific argument, and that’s obviously the area you’re happiest with Richard?
RD: It’s that the physical constants – things like the speed of light, gravitational constant and strong and weak force and things – most physicists agree that if you change any of those constants by even a very, very small amount, then we don’t come into existence; the universe doesn’t come into existence. They have to be like that in order for galaxies to form, for stars to form, for chemistry to form, actually. And then the prerequisite for life to evolve needs that as well. So that’s the nearest approach to a good argument. By the way, I want to be really careful about this, because I once said that – and I’m not going to mention the name of the man I was having a debate with – he seized onto that later and then I think a couple of days later he went up to Scotland and said: ‘Dawkins is a convert’! Not quite there.
JB: You gave an inch and he took a mile!
JB: Yes, well look, I’m very familiar with this argument as well – often called the argument for God from fine-tuning – it’s essentially a design argument. It’s saying look at the extraordinary fine-tuning of these initial constants of the universe. If they differed from their actual value just a tiny bit, we wouldn’t have a universe capable of producing life, and yet here we are – it needs an explanation. One of the explanations on the table, is a designer behind the whole thing. And when you look at the extraordinary numbers we’re talking about, you can see why it does – even for someone like you Richard, you know, you’d say that if there were an argument, it might be this one. And actually I’ve heard many other atheists say that – Peter Millican, I think Hitchens, all said, ok, that might be the one, if you were going to crack the door open a little bit.
But I think what you were coming to Richard is why you still think this is – you know, you’re still essentially pointing to a gap and filling it with God, is that your problem with this?
RD: Yes I mean it’s because it seems to me that all you’re doing is pushing it back a stage and you’ve still got to explain God. You’re saying we need an explanation for the fine-tuning, and so we postulate a fine-tuner. But you haven’t explained anything, I mean, you’ve simply invented… you’ve magic-ed away the problem.
JB: And this has been one of your key arguments, in your books, Richard, you know – just positing God just leaves you with something more complex to describe something already complicated.
RD: There’s that, but I think also you might convince somebody like me to be a deist, but then you suddenly say, ok, well because of…
FC: Ah, he’s converted! Did you hear that? Right here! [RD & JB laugh]
RD: Because of the fine-tuning argument! But then suddenly, ok, then we get Jesus Christ and then we get crucifixion and then we get resurrection, we get virgin birth – that’s nothing to do with it. That’s a positively dishonest way of smuggling in what you really want – well not you, but I mean what some Christians really want, which is to bring in Jesus – or Allah and Muhammad or Buddha or whatever it is. You cannot do that. I mean, either you’re going to stick with the fine-tuning argument – which is a good argument – or you’ve got to produce a really good argument for Jesus. But don’t think that because you’ve convinced somebody by the fine-tuning argument to be a deist, that therefore he’s then got to believe in Jesus.
JB: Right, sure, sure. Well let’s take those one at a time. Maybe Francis start with this problem that Richard has of: look, is God a satisfactory explanation? Aren’t you just substituting a mystery with a mystery at this point?
FC: So yeah, let’s tackle that. I’m glad that we all kind of agree the fine-tuning is a puzzle that seems to ask for some kind of explanation; The Goldilocks Enigma I think was a title of the book about this. And it is really remarkable just how fine-tuning that fine-tuning is. The alternative of course is to postulate that there are an infinite number of other universes that have different settings of those particular constants and we could only be at one where it happened to work, so that’s why we’re observing it from here. Of course, we don’t expect there will ever be an experimental means of actually detecting the presence of those universes, so that’s a bit of a leap of faith as well.
But I’d go a little beyond just the fine-tuning argument also to the argument about the Big Bang and what came before that. And here Richard is where I don’t agree with your argument that if you say God is the Creator who actually set this all in motion and as you have said, ‘twiddled the dials’ for these constants, that then need to create a reason or a Creator of God to start the whole thing off. Because again, I think of God as being outside of space and time, so all of our arguments about how you have to have a beginning and an end don’t apply anymore. Because if God is actually locked into space and time, you’ve got an infinite regress problem, but I don’t think that’s the case once you postulate a much broader sense of what the existence of God would be like.
JB: But you do think that God is a satisfactory explanation for that beginning?
FC: I do!
JB: You think that there has to be something like a God to explain why there is anything at all, presumably Francis?
FC: That’s entirely rational and defensible as a decision to take; doesn’t prove it, of course, and again I’ll say here as I did earlier, I don’t think we’re going to discover a proof of God in this conversation. But it’s consistent. Then Richard, as far as going from those arguments to the resurrection, no, of course, that requires – and I went through that for two years, kicking and screaming as I said – it’s kind of like the base camp. Richard, you’ve made it to base camp. But at the top of the mountain there’s a cross, and it might just be a little bit more of a trek to get up there – that was my trek at least. Because I encountered a total sense of unease and dissatisfaction in stopping at the deist version of God, because of this issue about good and evil and where does that come from and how do we put that into the equation of who we are and who God might be.
RD: I must stress once again, I’m not a deist and I don’t want to be… I’ve been burned by that before.
FC: Ok, you’re not a deist yet.
JB: We’re quashing those rumours right away!
RD: The thing about God being outside time and therefore with one bound Jack was free – it’s so easy; I mean, it’s such a facile, easy way to do it. We’ve got this problem of the origin of the universe and what came before the Big Bang: I know, let’s make God outside time – that’ll do it. And it’s just too easy; it’s not… I find that unimpressive.
FC: Was it rationally indefensible or is it just uncomfortable?
RD: I think it smacks of just again just inventing a new… it’s a sort of copout from actually providing a proper explanation. Now my physicist friends actually don’t see it as a problem – the multiverse. My understanding – and of course I’m not a physicist and you have the advantage of me there as a physical scientist – but what I’ve heard form my physicist friends is that actually the multiverse is something that comes from other aspects of physics – something that comes from inflation. And I don’t… I’m not a physicist enough to understand that, but I would be less convinced by the multiverse if it were just invented for the purpose of solving this problem of fine-tuning. But my understanding is that that’s not the case – that it already was a prediction or is a prediction of other reputable aspects of physics, I think especially the inflation theory – I may have got that wrong.
FC: Well that’s fair, and if you go to the Biologos website – which I will plug once again – the current president of Biologos, Deborah Haarsma is at MITS, or a physicist – and certainly would put forward this notion, that the inflationary theory does permit the possibility of bubbling up of these other universes. Not necessarily with different values of the constants however – you’ve got to throw another big wrinkle in there to make it possible to fit the explanation for the fine-tuning. But I know Lawrence Krauss, as you do, and we’ve had these conversations about exactly how much you can get there. What is troubling though – and I would guess is troubling to you too, as an experimental scientist – is that the ability to actually experimentally document the existence of those other universes seems almost to everybody to be extremely unlikely, probably impossible. And that makes it an uncomfortable place to place all ones bets. So if you’ve got these opportunities – you have a Creator God on the one hand and you have a theoretical prediction of multiverses that you will never be able to measure, you know, pick Occam’s razor here – which of those is a more plausible explanation kind of depends on whether you have a prior probability of God or not – and I do and you don’t.
JB: Well I was going to say, is the issue fundamentally Richard that you’ll never be satisfied with an immaterial explanation; you’ll always be – as a scientist in a sense and as a materialist, let’s face it – you’re not going to be satisfied with anything but a material explanation for the material universe we live in?
RD: That’s part of it. I suppose perhaps we both come at it with a bit of emotional… emotional is the wrong word… a bit of presupposition. As somebody who’s deeply steeped in evolution, I am kind of in love with the idea that it’s possible to explain complex things in terms of simple things. And that’s foreign to normal human nature – it’s a difficult thing for humans to grasp. And Darwin’s great gift to us, I think, is to show that big, complex things can come into existence by an explicable, understandable, beautiful, elegant process of gradual evolutionary change. And that’s such a beautiful idea, that inventing a big complex thing, which God must be if he exists, throws a ruddy great spanner in the whole works of the beauty of that Darwinian concept of…
JB: You don’t like way the universe looks…
RD: We’re both really talking about how we like the universe to look…
JB: …with this sort of messy explanation as far as you’re concerned…
RD: Most probably.
JB: But I suppose Francis, is God this complex sort of mysterious explanation, as far as you’re concerned, for the universe…
RD: Yes, and God’s got to be complex. I mean, I have come across theologians that say the beauty of God – I think Richard Swinburne, theologian, says, God is totally simple – that’s the beauty of it, you don’t need a complex God; he is simple. And that’s ridiculous, because if he is simple, he couldn’t invent these fundamental constants and the laws of physics and…
JB: Well Francis, what’s your view on that?
FC: Oh no, I think whatever ability we humans have to try to imagine what God is really like – if God exists; I believe he does – has got to be so completely pathetic, compared to the reality of that complexity. And that awesome capability as a physicist, mathematician and mind – I think of a mind, not as some grey-haired guy in the sky, which has been an unfortunate image foisted on generations of believers. I don’t think God has gender; I think God is a mind that is capable of things that you and I cannot possibly imagine.
RD: If he exists, then that must be what he is, yes.
JB: Yes, if God exists. Now you almost sound Richard that you would be disappointed ultimately, if that was the explanation? You would prefer that there be a sort of Darwinian explanation of the universe itself – that’s sort of where your mind goes. You don’t like the idea that there actually is some kind of a mind behind it?
RD: Yeah, that’s a fair summary of what I’ve just said. On the other hand, I will say that I don’t think this is a trivial question: I think that whether or not there is a God is the biggest question that you could ask. Actually it’s a scientific question – Francis may disagree with that? I think of it as a scientific question.
JB: Ok, why do you disagree Francis?
FC: Well it depends on what you set as the boundaries of a scientific question. I think Richard is getting at the fact that that means science is the only way to answer it. And I think if there is something outside of nature – and if God exists, God is definitely outside of nature – then the tools that we use to investigate nature – which is science, and it’s really good at that – may not be adequate for this. So in that regard, I don’t think it is a scientific question. I think you can explore possible bits of evidence, but I don’t think you can prove yes or no to the God question solely with the tools of science.
RD: Well you sort of have been in a way, because you’ve been using a scientific argument. I mean, the fine-tuning argument is a scientific argument, and what I would say is…
FC: It was not a proof; it was an inference…
RD: No, that’s right, but it’s a plausibility argument, but it’s using the methods of science. You’re saying that the phenomenon we see are that there are fundamental constants that we don’t understand, and they’re fine-tuned, and a reasonable, scientific model to account for that would be a supernatural mind. And what I was trying to say was that a universe with a Creator-mind – a creative intelligence – would be a totally different universe from one without. It would be a gigantically different problem we’re trying to solve. If the reason for the laws of physics is that somebody made them up, then that is a scientific fact of profound importance. A very different kind of universe from what it would be if nobody had made them up.
JB: And is this where… you have this famous quote, Richard, which I’ll quote back to you now, which is: ‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference’. Now is that the universe you observe, I suppose? Because my suspicion is Francis might say that’s not…
RD: As a biologist, it certainly is, yes, and I suspect that… I mean, I think I intended that to be general, and I still do, but it’s evolutionary biology that gives me the impetus to maintain that. I don’t have the knowledge of physics to be so confident…
FC: Can I jump in and propose something alternative to that very famous sentence of Richards? I would argue that the universe has exactly the properties you would expect if it was put there by God who desired creatures like us to exist, who could be morally responsible, who can love and care for each other, who can appreciate beauty and who will know the difference between good and evil and will ultimately seek a relationship with God. The universe has those properties.
RD: Then what about all the horrible, horrible parasites and predators…
JB: And Covid19?
FC: And hurricanes and earthquakes and… ok. Well let’s talk about Polkinghorne and their concept of physical evil. You can’t have it both way. For people who say: ‘God can do something’ – just because they think God ought to be able to do it, doesn’t make sense if it’s like, ok, two and two could be five, if God wanted it to be. If you’re going to set natural laws in place, including evolution, to ultimately result in something amazing and beautiful – creation – it’s going to also do other things along the way. And God can’t step in every whipstitch and avoid parasites – it’s all part of the fact.
RD: But then Francis you can’t have it both ways; you have it both ways when you believe in miracles. You cannot have a God who does miracles on the one hand, and yet who has this sort of let the laws of physics play themselves out without interference, on the other. You’re having it both ways when you believe in miracles.
FC: I think I can have it both ways if God was the author of natural laws and in every instance except extreme exceptions where God has a message for people that he cares about, then God chooses to interfere with his own natural laws, and something like the resurrection happened. I don’t find that to be intellectually inconsistent.
RD: God’s betraying his own principles then, if his principle is I’m going to give them freewill, I’m going to let it all happen, I’m not going to interfere when there’s a hurricane, I’m not going to save this child’s life… then on the other hand you’re saying that sometimes he does step in. So isn’t that inconsistent?
FC: There were great ganglions of history where something really critical needs to be conveyed to God’s people. Yes, as the author of natural laws, I believe God is entirely able to decide to briefly suspend them. But if he was doing that every time there was a hurricane, think of the chaos around us – how would we ever possibly manage to cope with this world if we had no predictability about how matter and energy is going to behave.
RD: I think that’s your problem…
JB: Well look, let’s come back to this in a moment and let’s maybe talk about Covid as well. We’re just going to take another quick break and we’ll be back in just a moment. We’re talking about science and faith today; Covid and God; atheism and biology. Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins join me on The Big Conversation today, we’ll be back in just a moment.
JB: Welcome back to today’s show, The Big Conversation – really privileged to have joining me Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins on today’s edition of the show. Talking about biology, belief and Covid, and I’ll make sure there are links to both my guests’ websites from today’s show – you can find out more about them, their books and the causes and organisations that they’ve created. I wanted obviously, given that you have been at the forefront of the USA’s response to Covid, Francis, and we’d started by talking about that, to talk about that in scientific and theology terms. And again, given what we were just saying about Richard’s concerns that it’s very difficult to understand if you are a Christian who believes in a loving God, who could intervene, why God has allowed this kind of universe to exist in which the natural laws take the course they do. Perhaps just to put this into context, for those who may not be familiar with the biology, just give us a very simple sort of education on the Covid virus and what caused it, why it’s there, and the fact that obviously not all viruses are necessarily problematic or even we need some. But then, you know, why this particular one has caused the amount of disruption and devastation that it has? And then where you see that fitting in, if there is really a God behind this whole thing?
FC: So there are more viruses than there are stars in the universe – these are incredibly widespread. They effect every organism; bacteria have their own viruses, there’s this battle going on right now in your GI tract, whether you like it or not, between the viruses that are attacking your bacteria, and let’s hope the right ones win. But viruses can also cause very serious illnesses, as we all know from things like smallpox and polio and now Covid19. Viruses tend to be particularly dangerous for humans when they jump across from other species, and that seems most likely to be what happened here, despite various conspiracy theories. By far the most likely explanation is that this virus which was being developed in a bat and perhaps travelling through another species got into humans possibly in the wet market in Wuhan, China. And there it found a host that was very susceptible to its ability to multiply itself; it bound it to human cells using a human protein on the surface called ACE2, which allowed that virus to get inside and then take over that host cells machinery and replicate itself at a very rapid pace and then spread to other cells nearby. And furthermore, this virus was particularly good at making itself contagious to others around; even people who weren’t yet symptomatic could be very infectious, which is why SarsCV2 has been such a bad actor and why so many people have gotten sick and died.
So that is pretty consistent with what we know about other viruses; there’s nothing particularly striking here, except maybe this very unusual way that people who aren’t feeling sick can be super spreaders of the virus, which has made this one really successful. And of course with evolutionary pressure, with so many people affected, mistakes made in copying the virus – most of which are deleterious – occasionally pops up with something which makes it even better at infecting people; that was Alpha, that we Beta, that was Delta and now it’s Omicron, and who knows what might be next.
So how did this come about? Let’s be clear that this is probably at least indirectly a consequence of humans and animals getting really close together in ways that they traditionally have not – bats living in caves in China generally didn’t come in contact with a lot of humans, and now that’s been more common. Same thing with influenza, as you all know, in terms of how that comes from birds or sometimes from pigs – this is a constant refrain. And I don’t think we should blame God for that part.
Now in terms of the question about why would God allow this anyway? Again I come back to the fact that I see God as interested in natural order and having put in place this incredibly elegant process of evolution. it would not be appropriate to sort of say, oh yeah, but you can’t make viruses, evolution – you’ve got to leave that part alone. And actually, viruses in many instances are actually part of the natural order and are not harmful, but occasionally they burst out like this – and I don’t think we should blame God for that. What we should do is to try to take the tools of science, which I think are God-given; we have the intelligence to be able to figure these things out – and use that to come up with ways to prevent and treat the disease, which is what the scientific community has been doing, as I said at the beginning, with great intensity and great effect, for two years.
JB: Richard, firstly just your position on the actual science of how it came into being – I know Francis obviously feels convinced that the Wuhan wet market is the most obviously explanation – do you broadly agree with that?
RD: I am insufficiently expert to say, I simply enjoyed listening to Francis laying it out – I mean he’s the expert. I would say viruses – they do what viruses do. I mean, that’s the whole point about the Gene’s Eye View of Evolution – that the as it were teleonomic entity in the living world is the gene. And viruses are just kind of almost pure genes, with a bit of protein to help them get about. The virus is the selfish gene reductio – it’s the epitome of a selfish gene, which does what all genes are trying to do, which is to get into the next generation. And it does it in a peculiarly direct way, without bothering to build a body on the way. I mean, I’ve said that a rhinoceros is genes way of making more rhinoceros’, and it’s a sort of highly elaborate… the genome of a rhinoceros is a highly elaborate computer programme, which says, ‘build more genes like us’ and using the body of a rhinoceros as the vehicle for doing so. Well viruses don’t need to bother about that, they just go for it; they just go for replication, pure and simple, and it’s entirely to be expected that they would exist; bacteria a bit less direct, and so on. So I can take a kind of ghoulish satisfaction in the way that viruses simply do what Darwin would have expected.
I would put in a plug for Darwinian medicine, and here I pass this onto Francis as a senior medical scientist in America. There is a school of Darwinian medicine which tries to look at disease from the point of view of the pathogen; what the pathogen is trying to do in it’s life, which is to get itself propagated – and at the same time look at what the patient is trying to do. An obvious example is when a patient has a high fever, ask yourself whether the high temperature is something that the doctor ought to be bringing down, because it’s unnatural, or whether the high fever might be actually an adaptation by the patient to kill the pathogen. In most cases it might not be the best thing – it might be the best thing to allow… I mean I’m sure you’re familiar with that example.
But there’s a book, which I recommend, by Randolf Nesse and George C Williams, the late very distinguished evolutionary biologist – it’s not called Darwinian Medicine, but it should have been. They gave it a bad title, which is Why We Get Sick – and the doctor’s not going to buy a book about why we get sick – he already knows. But if had been called Darwinian Medicine, I think a doctor might be interested in buying it. So I think the subtitle is ‘Darwinian Medicine’ – Randolf Nesse and George C Williams. And the fever example is just the first and the very obvious one.
Much less obvious one is all the ailments of pregnancy – preeclampsia, that kind of thing – can be very elegantly explained a result of an evolutionary conflict between the mother and the foetus. Because they’re not genetically identical and the foetus’ genetic interest is somewhat selfish; it wants to draw from the mother more resources than the mother, evolutionary speaking, ought to give. So the conflict can result in an evolutionary arms race, which the main work there is by David Haig of Harvard University, and that I think is discussed in the book, Darwinian Medicine. So any doctors listening in who are not familiar with this might like to look up that book.
JB: And on that subject, Francis, given that you both believe that in a sense evolution drives these forces – that both the aspects of our cells that tend towards our healing and our health and so on, but also these forces that are in competition with us, the virus that wants to replicate itself and will use whatever host it can lay its hands on in the course of that. Obviously for Richard this doesn’t sit well with the idea that there’s a God on top of this whole thing. But for you, you’re really happy to say it’s actually sort of the sharp end of the deal with God, as it were, as embodied conscious agents – that this is the kind of world God had to put us in in order for us to be the kind of people we are, is that what you’re saying there?
FC: That’s what I’m saying. And to follow natural laws and order in the universe – just as tectonic plates must slip in order for this planet to be what it is, and so viruses must come into being if evolution is going to run all of the programmes that is capable of doing, to generate interesting biological outcomes. And again, I come back to Polkinghorne’s concept, that those things could be called physical evil, when they actually harm and take the lives of innocent people. But they’re components of the fact that we are in a universe that follows laws. And I don’t think that we’d want to be in one that didn’t.
RD: I get that, and I mean that would be a consistent position to take, were it not for your belief in miracles. I’ll say again, you can’t have it both ways. God should not be doing miracles if what you say about earthquakes is correct.
FC: But if God has…
RD: He’s betraying his own principles…
FC: No, he is choosing, because he is able to do so, those moments of remarkable importance, to convey a message to his creatures – that would be you and me – in a way that the miraculous may be able to achieve. And again, if God’s the author of all of this, I don’t see why God should not be allowed…
RD: Yes, he would have the power to, but then, ‘ok, I’m not going to intervene in this earthquake, because that would be inconsistent with the desire to let things play out, but I am going to intervene to heal Jairus’ daughter or raise Lazarus from the dead’, you know.
JB: It’s funny you mention that story, Richard – I was only reading that story to my six-year-old son this evening in bed, and it comes at the point where the power has gone out of Jesus as a women touches his hem on the way to her.
RD: I don’t think Francis believes in those events – do you believe…
JB: Ok, well do you believe in the miraculous healings of Jesus?
FC: I do. I think they’re recorded by reliable witnesses who observed these things to happen, and I have no reason therefore to question them more than I do to question the resurrection, which is the most critical miracle of all. And without resurrection, my Christian faith really doesn’t have any substance.
RD: Yes, but ok. So you don’t intervene with earthquakes; you don’t do any other miracles, no miracles – then suddenly during a thirty-year period from 0AD to 30AD, a whole spate of miracles happen – it doesn’t add up!
FC: Well it was not just any thirty-year period, Richard – it was the moment where God actually became human. So if there was ever a moment therefore, in which the miraculous could be experienced by humanity, that would be it.
RD: But you must see that you’re being unscientific there? You’re suddenly departing from everything you’ve been saying?
FC: You must see that you’re applying your own view, that anything that can’t be explained naturally must be an intellectual error. And you and I are different in that regard. I’m allowing the possibility of the supernatural – a Creator God who’s responsible for everything.
RD: Yes, I’m kind of amazed actually… I don’t want to get into biblical scholarship, but you must be aware that a huge number of biblical scholars don’t take all the miracle stories seriously?
FC: I am aware. And I will be happy to listen to their arguments, if there are specific ways to discount one or the other. When it comes to the resurrection though, please read Tom Wright’s wonderful book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, if you want to see the kind of scholarship that anyone would want to ask for, for the most significant miracle of all time.
JB: Let’s just return to the issue of the fact that as you said Francis, as much as there has been this disease and the way that Covid has ravaged the earth, there has been extraordinary response from the scientific community. And an incredible amount – despite the politicisation that’s inevitably happened of it – an incredible amount of human sacrifice and willingness to help people. Here in the UK certainly, the whole point of the lockdown was really to protect the most vulnerable. And there’s an argument there, and I’ll put this first to you Richard, that that very instinct to protect the most vulnerable – to make sure that the elderly are not simply gone because of this disease and everything else, even if the younger, more fit members could have rode it out without all the interruption to life and everything – that’s not a very evolutionary way of looking at life? It’s not survival of the fittest. We seem to have decided that actually humans should not be subject simply to the natural processes of what happens, but we’re going to use every gift at our disposal to hold onto life and to value the life of even the most vulnerable individual – a baby, someone with Down Syndrome. And many people have said there’s something of the divine in that, and I suspect Francis might say that, so I’ll let Francis respond to that?
RD: Well you more than suspect, he says it in The Language of God. And it’s the beginning of the book and it’s where he’s quoting C S Lewis – we can come to that. I said earlier that I thought it was deeply unimpressive, and I need to obviously defend that, because I know it’s close to Francis’ heart. Francis says, in The Language of God, that altruistic acts of this kind are explicable by evolutionary means where there is kinship involved – social insects – and where there’s the prospect of reciprocation. And those are the standard Darwinian explanations for altruism. And you’re absolutely right, that they don’t explain things like caring for the elderly, donating blood, donating to charity – all that kind of thing. This is something different. And Francis tries to make the case that this is a uniquely or almost uniquely human characteristic, which demands a divine explanation – this moral sense that humans have.
And the reason I find that unconvincing is… let me give an analogy. We have a sexual instinct, whose biological evolutionary function is clearly reproduction, but we don’t actually think about that. When we have sex, we very often are using contraceptives, so we have thwarted Darwinian design – we’re having sex because we enjoy sex. Now what has happened there is that in evolution, natural selection has built into us a rule of thumb, which doesn’t say do everything in your power to propagate your genes. What it says is: ‘enjoy sex’ – it gives you a liking for sex.
Now in our evolutionary past we wouldn’t have lived in large cities like we do now; we would have lived in small bands, small villages – small bands of like the boons, perhaps, where everyone you meet would be your kin. And moreover, everyone you meet would be the kind of person you’re going to meet again throughout your life. Therefore reciprocation and kin selection would have built into our brains a rule of thumb – not try to work out the coefficient of relationship to the person then decide whether to be altruistic, just be nice to everyone you know; be nice to everyone you meet, be nice to everyone in the village – be nice to everyone.
Now a rule of thumb like that, when you suddenly move out of those villages into the huge cities that we now live in, you’re no longer living in a small village, but the rule of thumb is still there. It’s just like the sex rule of thumb – in just the same way as the sex rule of thumb, which before contraception was invented in our primitive past, before contraception was invented, the rule of thumb said: ‘enjoy sex’ – automatically had the consequence of having children and propagating your genes. The rule of thumb which said be nice to everyone, automatically benefited your genes and in two-ways, both kin selection and reciprocation, it no longer does. It’s analogous to having sex with contraception, but the rule of thumb is still there – that is how a Darwinian would explain altruism of the form look after the elderly and look after the sick.
FC: And the Darwinian has just done that explanation. And Richard, I’ve heard you use the analogy to sex before and I kind of see where you’re going, but it bothers me that one would basically discount the most noble kinds of acts of human radical altruism as a misfiring of some evolutionary mechanism that’s gone awry. When I look around me and see what’s happened with Covid… I mean, look at those people who are working in an ICU – nurses, doctors, other folks – taking care of unvaccinated people who shouldn’t really have to be there, but still giving of themselves as best they can to try to save their lives, and exposing themselves also to becoming ill and dying themselves. That is an incredibly noble set of actions and to dismiss that – that bothers me. And I think it brings me…
RD: No I’m not dismissing. You see, that’s right, I’m not dismissing – I agree it’s noble, it’s terribly noble, I think it’s wonderful and I hugely admire it. But I’m not dismissing it; I’m explaining it. It’s a different thing.
FC: Well let me bring this to the next level then, and Richard I appreciate your critique of the way in which The Language of God starts off, and I hope soon to write a new edition of that where I would somewhat redo the argument about the moral law – not dismiss it, but redo it –because I think it was still a bit unformed. But the question I want to come to is this whole question then of morality and where it comes from, and why do we as humans have this universal sense – regardless of what point in history or what culture we’re in – that there is such a thing as good and there’s something called evil. We disagree profoundly, based on our culture, about which actions are good and which actions are evil. But we don’t disagree that there is a difference, and that we’re somehow called to work on the things that are in the good column and avoid the things in the evil column.
I can see the evolutionary argument that that is basically burned into our DNA and our brains, by the way in which it has allowed our species to survive. But does that then say – and would you say – that those are basically concepts that we’ve been hoodwinked about. That there really is no profound significance to morality at all – it’s all an illusion.
RD: When you talk about good and evil, isn’t it enough to say good is what good people do and evil is what bad people do? You don’t need to evoke on the spirit of God or the spirit of evil; it’s not something hanging out there in the air – it’s just a description.
FC: No, but we have some sense about how we evaluate particular actions that seems to be universal to humanity.
RD: Yes, I don’t find that a problem. We have a saying that we have a sense of beauty – we have a sense of…
FC: There is another one! Where does that come from? I was hoping we might go there too.
RD: Well that’s why I raise it. I mean, peahens have a sense of beauty, which is why peacocks look the way they do. It’s wonderful and it requires explanation, but it has an explanation. And in the same way as beauty is something which we can understand – in the same way peahens have a sense of beauty, we can too. I don’t see that evil is anything different really from that. It’s if I see somebody torturing a kitten I say, ‘that’s evil’, but I’m not saying he’s imbued with the spirit of evil, I’m just saying he’s a nasty, bad man.
JB: I suppose the place where I often see the difference is that while we may all go along with the evolutionary explanation that tells us why we have this sort of moral code, if you like – even if we accepted that was a sort of reasonable explanation – there’s still that sort of so called is/ought difference, isn’t there. And the fact that you can explain what is, doesn’t necessarily explain why we ought to do that. I mean, if you don’t believe there’s a God saying you should fulfil your evolutionary potential, then what is the sense in which morality is binding on anyone, Richard, I suppose is perhaps the next question? Why should we obey these moral principles, that may be burned into us by our evolutionary story?
RD: Yes. The first thing I would say is that I very much hope that we don’t get our morals from any of the Abrahamic religions, because it would be a horrible world to live in if we did. Where do we get them from is a very interesting question and what I notice, looking at history, is that the change – in a good way, as Steven Pinker has pointed out in several of his books, like The Better Angels of our Nature – as the centuries go by, we’re getting a lot better; getting a lot nicer. You know, we’ve abolished slavery, equal respect to the sexes, we don’t torture animals – well perhaps we still do, but we’re kind of getting a sense that we shouldn’t, and certainly less than we used to. So there is what I’ve called a Changing Moral Zeitgeist, which you can see happening actually from decade to decade. I mean, when I was young there was a lot more racism around than there is now; a lot more sexism around than there is now. So things are changing.
FC: I hope that’s a monotonic curve; I worry a little bit, the confidence…
RD: Yes, I know, yes. But whatever it is, it’s not coming from outside; you can think of it as something in the air but I don’t mean anything mystical by that, I mean it’s a combination of journalism, of dinner party conversations, of parliamentary decisions, of decisions in courts of law, moral philosophic arguments written in learned journals and filtering out down – there’s a whole lot of different things that have led to the Shifting Moral Zeitgeist, such that we’ve abolished slavery, sexism and racism are now unrespectable in the way that they used not to be.
JB: I’d be interested in your response to all of that Francis. Do you think that that is kind of the way it works – morality is just whatever our culture delivers us at this moment?
FC: No, I was trying to say otherwise. I was trying to say – and read the appendix to C S Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man; it’s a wonderful appendix. Kind of walks through all the cultures that Lewis had studied and he was a pretty good scholar, pointing out that there are no exceptions; they all had this concept of good and evil. They interpreted it in very different ways, and perhaps we are now interpreting it in different ways as we make this even bigger kind of progress. But the point here is that humans, for all of history, have never disagreed that there is something that we’re supposed to do. Where does that come from? We’re supposed to be good; we’re supposed to avoid evil – I just have a big problem seeing that as a purely evolutionary consequence that has no deeper meaning.
And this is where I do get to the point of morality. And Richard, I do see that if I was looking for a signpost of something that said that God might be interested in me, and God might be the ultimate example of holiness, here I find it. And I’m puzzled by that and I think lots of other people are as well. Where does morality come from? Basic evolution doesn’t quite answer that.
RD: It does for me. But as you say it changes – it’s different in different cultures. And I’ve just been trying to say, different in our own culture as the decades go by.
FC: But Richard, let me press you on that. I agree it’s different in different cultures. But the concept that there is good and evil, is not different; it’s just discussions about what fits into which category. Where does the concept…
RD: I can’t imagine what it would look like if it wasn’t. How could a society not have some kind of idea, that if so and so steals somebody else’s canoe or steals somebody else’s pig or something in some society, that would contravene the conventions of the society and would be regarded as bad, therefore.
FC: And would require some sort of bad outcome for the thief, but where would justice come from there, that we also need to be generous, we need to be bighearted when we have seen people who have done a bad thing, we need to figure out how to forgive them – where does forgiveness fit?
RD: Well I think forgiveness might not a very universal thing, I mean, you might find it quite hard in some societies to find forgiveness. But in any case…
FC: But we admire that. I mean, look at the terrible shooting Charleston and Dylann Roof who killed those people and then they found it possible to forgive him. And we look at that – at least I do – and I think that is an amazing example of human noble actions.
RD: I do too, but it doesn’t require anything mystical. Why do you have to reach out…
FC: Why do we care about it? Why do we see it as so beneficial as opposed to: well that was just something they just decided to do. It reaches us; it makes us feel like there’s something more to humans than just the mechanics.
RD: Well why do we feel sexual desire? We know why that is, and I tried to put a case for why we feel altruism, because of once living in these small villages. And so…
FC: Yeah, that didn’t quite work for me though. Again Richard, you’re taking a particularly impressive and somewhat puzzling aspect of human behaviour – radical altruism, a sort of Oskar Schindler who risked his life and ultimately loses it for people he doesn’t even know – and saying it’s just a misfiring. It doesn’t sit well with ones….
RD: Ok, misfiring doesn’t have to have the pejorative connotation that you’ve put on it. I mean, you could say that the desire to adopt a child – many people adopt a child – now that is a misfiring. But that’s not a pejorative. I mean, it’s an admirable thing to do; it’s a wonderful thing to do – but it is a misfiring of the Darwinian impulse to want to rear a child of your own. That’s fine; it’s a beautiful thing.
FC: Why do we admire it?
RD: Well we have the desire to rear a child for good Darwinian reasons, which you and I would agree with. But then when a couple cannot have a child, they have that desire – it’s like the desire for sex, which you still have the desire even though you’re using a contraception. Similarly you still have the desire for a child, even though you are – for one reason or another – unable to have a child of your own. So you adopt one. Now that is technically a misfiring, but please don’t think that I’m saying anything pejorative about it – on the contrary, I think it’s noble, as I think the sort of Oskar Schindler behaviour is extremely noble.
JB: But presumably Francis, as we’ll have to start wrapping this up as I’m aware you’ve both given me a great deal of time and it’s been fascinating, but presumably you believe that that nobility we see in such an act, goes beyond just an evolutionary thing – you believe that there’s a real right and wrong that exists in the universe, that we’re kind of sort of seeing and acting upon, in that sense?
FC: I do see that and I am not happy dismissing it on just purely materialistic grounds. Those who study what’s exceptional about humanity, they always come up with these three characteristics of what it is that we are attached to. One is truth, which at the moment is a little bit under new fire, at least in my country. Another is goodness – where does that come form? And the third is beauty, which we touched on and which I also think can’t be dismissed as ‘we’re just peahens’. We see beauty in equations; we see beauty in music and in a powder pink in the western sky at sunset. And it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of evolutionary benefits to us, and yet it matters and it also lifts us in a certain way – into a plane of something other than the sort of pure daily-ness of our experience. Some glimpse of something, what Lewis calls: ‘joy’ – where you have just a sense that there’s something more, if I could just grasp it and then as soon you try, it’s gone. And that feels to me like a real, significant experience that should not be dismissed as a neurotransmitter that just lost it’s way.
RD: You keep using words like dismiss. I don’t dismiss it – I exalt in it! I mean, it’s wonderful; it’s beautiful. And the fact that you can give it an explanation is not to dismiss it or demean it or reduce it in some way. Yes I mean a sense of beauty, the sense of the enjoyment of Beethoven – it is actually firing of synapses in your brain. But that’s not to demean it – it’s still wonderful.
FC: Incredibly wonderful, and Polkinghorne’s line comes to mind, that beauty is not something we should dismiss as just evolutionary epiphenomenal froth on the surface of an uncaring universe.
RD: But that’s emotive language again, which it’s not dismissing, it’s not froth – it’s wonderful! But it’s explicable.
JB: Ok. Well look, we’ll agree to disagree on this one, but it’s been a real pleasure having the conversation between you and perhaps we’ll go out to some music if we can dig out that track of yours Francis! For now, thank you very much, Richard and Francis, it’s been a stimulating conversation and one that’s been done in a great spirit of respect.
FC: Wonderful to be able to talk with you again, Richard. I was looking forward to this – it’s really been a pleasure
RD: Yes, it’s been a pleasure. Look forward to the next time if there is one!