Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wolpert vs. Cowburn in London

Wolpert makes the case that religious faith is a natural outgrowth of human psychology, such as agency detection and causal attribution. He even goes so far as to claim that mystical thinking was itself advantageous in the infancy of our species. He has to restrain himself when speaking of Papal ethics, which I find perfectly understandable.

Cowburn leads off with both his scientific and Christian bona fides, claiming to believe wholeheartedly in both of these frameworks for understanding the world. He claims that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Personally, I'm somewhat sympathetic to this view. If God is above and beyond and behind all natural laws, you should not be able to use those laws to suss Him out. He goes on to enumerate a few outstanding abuses of science (involving the naturalistic fallacy) and tries to erect a conceptual wall of separation between the spires of Christian churches and ivory towers of scientific academia.

Wolpert comes back at Cowburn with a demand for some evidence or argument for the existence of God, and for evidence of the human soul and other such Biblical claims.

Cowburn rejects Biblical literalism on theological grounds, and completely avoids the question of souls because Wolpert had phrased it badly (inaptly using the term ‘reincarnation’) and goes on to praise science for a bit. He alludes to the first-cause and fine-tuning arguments as hints of the divine, and finally goes on to preach the gospel of Jesus using the high Christology of John. For some bizarre reason he calls this story a "pinch-point experiment" which can allow us to determine the deepest truths about life. Perhaps this was truly so, for those few women who first encountered the risen Jesus in the flesh, but for the rest of us, though, the gospels are hearsay piled upon hearsay, passed along orally for decades before being put to paper by authors who neither named themselves nor their sources.

Overall, this was not a particularly enlightening debate, and that despite both men managing to sound fairly intelligent and articulate. I wish that they had picked something narrower to dig in and really debate about.

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