Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Time for Richard Dawkins

Richard dawkins is this week, retiring from his post as Charles Simonyi (in case you're wondering, a very rich man who used to work for Microsoft) chair for the Public Understnding of Science at Oxford. What follows is therefore quite an apt article, which I wrote earlier this autmn.

Time for Richard Dawkins

Eminent and prolific, Professor Richard Dawkins has been a symbol for all that is scientific, intelligent and English for many a year now. The scientific community will wish him well this year, as he reaches the age for mandatory retirement from his post as Simonyi chair for public understanding of science at the University of Oxford.

In the aftermarth of his most recent and controversial (to say the least) book, ‘The God Delusion’ how can us lesser intellectual mortals engage with what has become known as the Oxford God debate? As I have considered this question I have begun to ask, are there some things which science - and even Richard Dawkins - will simply never be able to explain?

Firstly, it is imperative that we have a sound grasp of what it means to a scientist to explain something. For example, it is apparent that we exist in a universe with extremely complex laws of nature, intelligent life and beauty in many places. How do we explain the fact that it exists at all? What this boils down to in a scientific sense is that the existence of our universe is improbable without a cause. So any explaining theory which makes the existence more probable is initially a reasonable one. The best thing science has got at the moment is the Darwinian theory of evolution, as propounded by Dawkins in books like ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ .

The Watchmaker analogy says that something with complex inner workings such as a watch (or a human person) is so complex that it necessitates a designer; a watchmaker (or a God). The Blind Watchmaker theory, as explained so eloquently by Richard Dawkins, postulates that if the watchmaker was blind (i.e. not an intelligent being) a watch might still eventually get finished if the watchmaker (evolution) was allowed enough time to try lots of different combinations. This makes life on earth seem much more probable – in fact, given that the time period is something like one billion years I makes it almost certain – and so is a very good scientific theory.

Theologians, for the most part, accept this as good science, and most likely the truth. Where some experts disagree with Dawkins is where the universe came from in the first place. Professor Dawkins believes that something as complicated as our universe must require a cause which is at least as complicated as the universe. It can never, in his view, therefore be an explanation because it in turn requires an even more complex explanation. Was God created by a super-God and he in turn by a hyper-God?

Ex-Regius professor of Divinity at Oxford University, Keith Ward, points out in his recent work that this paradox does not really exist. Since physicists agree the Universe is composed of not merely space, but Steven Hawkin-esque ‘space-time’ then this, surely, is what God (if we suppose for a minute that there is one) must have created. If God created time, then it is clear he can not have a cause – the question, ‘what came before God then?’ has no meaning when we take time out of the equation.

The more we discover about the laws which govern our Universe the harder it becomes for us to conduct experiments to test our theories and make our observations – the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva has had to be delayed over until after winter; unfortunately if they switched it the super conducting magnets on now they would suck enough power out of the French national grid that the French would have nothing left to heat their homes!

Realistically speaking we are beginning to reach the boundary of testable science when we deal with Bosons and quarks.

Are these the lengths we have to go to in order to get answers about cutting edge science? Let us not give up the search for understanding, but let us also be humble enough to admit that we may simply not have the capacity to make the measurements necessary to uncover the innermost secrets of the cosmos.

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