Sunday 25 April 2010

Paul Davies and John Lennox discuss SETI on the Unbelievable? radio show

Here's the opening post of a thread I started in the Premier Community regarding the April 17 edition of Unbelievable? The mp3 of the programme is available here:
A remarkably civil discussion about SETI and its implications. Paul Davies isn't one of those nasty New Atheists — rather, he could be classed as an accommodationist, and was indeed a recipient, in 1995, of the Templeton Prize.

Wearing his "philosopher's hat" Paul Davies thinks that the human ability to unravel and understand the workings of the universe is of fundamental cosmic significance. This to me seems like a version of the anthropic principle: we can understand the universe — therefore it was made to be understood (tacit subtext: "…by us"). He said you have to ask, "What is this big universe for?" No, you don't have to ask this. It's begging the question to assume the universe has a purpose before asking what that purpose is. The correct, prior, question is "Does the universe have a purpose?" Davies is imputing teleology without establishing that such teleology exists. We can understand the universe (to a degree) because we are intelligent products of the universe. It is an obvious fact that the universe is susceptible to rational analysis.

John Lennox asked why we might consider a stream of recognisable DNA sequences originating from space to have an intelligent source, yet the same sequences present in DNA itself are not thought to be from an intelligent source (except by intelligent design proponents). But the probability of random chance replicating a specific sequence is extremely low, and if we recognised such a sequence from a source other than DNA we would have to conclude that the source was likely to be intelligent. If you produce a genuinely random number of many digits' length, the chance of replicating that number by chance is practically zero. DNA sequences, however, are not produced by chance. I find it astonishing that a professor of mathematics seems not to appreciate this.

John Lennox presupposes mind/body dualism in order to argue that supernatural power can affect the natural world. (This isn't surprising — I'd hardly expect him to accept that he doesn't have a transcendent soul, but it's a bit cheeky of him to use such a presumption in his argument. Davies didn't pick him up on this — I wonder where Davies stands on the existence of souls.)

Davies asked Lennox, "What's God doing now?" Lennox replied, "God is upholding the universe." This is the height of meaningless obfuscation. Earlier Lennox objected to Davies' distaste for a god that "manipulates molecules", and yet "upholding the universe" isn't a comprehensible description of any kind of activity. (I'm assuming here that Lennox doesn't have in his mind's eye an image of Atlas supporting the celestial spheres on his shoulders.)

Interesting discussion, but hardly satisfying. 
Go to the Unbelievable? website to follow the online discussion.