Reviews & Testimonials

This new production, by a company based in Scotland, is attracting considerable attention in Britain, and television rights have already been bought in countries as far apart as Sweden and Thailand. I understand that there is similar interest in the USA; this is appropriate, the contributors being as often American as British. Regrettably, there are only two or three from Continental Europe. Nevertheless, the questions raised are universal, and central to the concerns of ESSSAT members.

The core publication consists of three 1-hour DVDs, each in two 30-min parts. The three themes are:

The Cosmos

Life and Evolution

Mind and Consciousness

Within each DVD the format is that a large number of speakers are figured, usually talking informally to an off-camera interviewer. Their contributions are interspersed by comments from a narrator, and by visual images. A good number of these images are splendid photographs and graphic sequences of scientific subjects, from botanical to astronomical, more or less apposite to the adjacent spoken contributions. However, there are also rather a lot of shots of people in crowds, one frequent theme being speeded-up aerial views of street crossings.

The producers of the series state that their effort has been to present an even-handed balance between atheist or agnostic and theist contributions. The latter are heavily weighted towards Christianity. There is one identifiable representative of Judaism (Rabbi Jonathan Sachs) and one of Islam (Usama Hasan, a young astronomer), but neither takes a sectarian stance, preferring a broadly humane theism. Overall, the atheism/theism balance seems to me only slightly tilted towards theism in the first two DVDs. However atheists will surely feel that the third is distinctly biased in favour of the religious outlook.

Among other general features is that each spoken contribution is very short − some are mere sound bites, few last longer than 15 seconds. Balanced against that, every speaker appears more than once, often 5 or more times in a DVD. Several indeed figure in two DVDs, and perhaps five in all three. These latter include the American popular theologian William Lane Craig, the Oxford physical chemist and vehement but regretful atheist Peter Atkins, and another Oxford professor, this time of mathematics, John Lennox. Prof Lennox, who is given more screen-time here than anyone else, is not a member of any of the Science-&-Religion organisations with which I am involved, but the Study Guide tells me that he has published several books in the field under the Lion imprint. He has a warmly avuncular style and a straightforward, no-nonsense mode of apologetic.

In keeping with Lennox’s recurrent appearances, this mode in fact epitomises the whole production. Robust positions on each side are expressed at many points, but subtlety, philosophical or theological, is only occasionally hinted at (and never by Lennox!). I say this, however, to characterise, rather than criticise. The whole enterprise: is not principally aimed at sophisticated thinkers immersed in the field (such as ESSSAT members?) but at their students and congregations. With those audiences in mind, it should prove at the very least an extremely useful tool. For many it will be much more than that, as the quick-fire juxtaposition of viewpoints, often expressed by leading figures in the field, will be truly exciting (despite those too-numerous crowd scenes!).

To look now at the contents of each DVD, The Cosmos sets David Wilkinson, John Polkinghorne and Paul Davies over against Peter Atkins, Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins. All these of course are or have been serious scientists. Polemical atheism is represented by Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, but they are balanced by the measured tones of Jonathan Sachs and Peter Harrison. Some of the clearest scientific exposition is provided by people whose theological position is not evident at all, notably a charming young American cosmologist, Kimberley Weaver. Equally clear, but explicitly non-theistic, is Italian-American Mario Livio, yet Rafael Pascual (Rome) is a Catholic priest. Finally, I must mention Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society, who is smilingly but crusadingly agnostic: “I don’t know − and you don’t either!”

The content of this first DVD is strictly cosmological: quantum mechanics figures only in relation to creation out of nothing. Fine tuning is well discussed. Weinberg is impressed only by the 56 or more decimal places to which the expansive force of dark energy has to be balanced by a restraining force, for the universe not to have exploded or imploded long ago. Davies, Wilkinson and Polkinghorne, however, are all quietly persuaded that “something is going on”. And Davies, in particular, is scathing about the fraudulent pot-pourri of argument that masquerades as the “multiverse” theory − among its futilities, as an anti-theistic position, is that a multiverse is no less in need of creation than a single universe. And I leave the last word also with Davies on a different point: “To say that we need brilliant minds to figure out what’s going on, but mind played no part in the structure and origin of it, seems to me rather peculiar.” Strikingly understated!

Life and Evolution has as its epigraph Darwin’s great phrase from the last sentence of The Origin of Species, “There is a grandeur in this view of life …”. Dawkins and Lennox of course reappear, sometimes in head-to-head debate; Atkins, Hasan and Polkinghorne are also seen again. The non-committal expositor now is an astrobiologist, Carol Cleland. Anti-theistic biologists and bio-philosophers are represented by Steve Jones, Dean Hamer, David Sloan-Wilson and Dan Dennett; against them are Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, Celia Deane-Drummond and the magisterially balanced Denis Alexander. Between these camps, but all three sympathetic to Darwin, are his biographer James Moore, bio-philosopher Michael Ruse (as warmly avuncular as Lennox, but at the exact centre of the road, not an extreme edge) and educationalist Michael Reiss, who only a few years ago suffered a career set-back for being even-handed.

Proponents of Intelligent Design are allocated more time than I would have allowed, yet counter my prejudice by coming across quite well. The best known is William Demski, but he is ably supported by Stephen Meyer. The tone is lowered by a man called McIntosh, who somehow manages to be a Young Earth Creationist while professing thermodynamics! But the producers are properly representing the range of opinions.

Much is made of uncertainties, both about how life originated on earth, and about whether natural selection can account for the speed, the punctuations, and the hints of directedness in subsequent evolution. Here I am sorry to say that I found the science inadequate. Concerning origins, there is no acknowledgement of Stuart Kauffman’s contention that autocatalytic molecular systems, “poised on the edge of chaos”, might have vastly enhanced the likelihood of self-replicating structures forming in a pre-biotic soup. Kauffman’s ideas are equally significant in relation to punctuations in subsequent evolution. Also here we ought to find reference to the thinking of Simon Conway-Morris, arising from the multiplicity of convergences in evolutionary history (eyes evolving separately more than 40 times, for instance). There is even no recognition of the epigenetic and environmental modifications of gene expression that massively alter the variations upon which natural selection acts, and are the leitmotif of modern developmental biology. The more extreme protagonists in the debate presented here thus strike me as huffing and puffing within a scientific understanding that is some 40 years out of date. Compared to the debate whether Genesis 1 and/or 2-3 is to be read as science (which was constructively assessed by Augustine in the early 5th C) this is bang up to date, but it is not the standard by which the producers of the series wanted to be judged.

I must be briefer about the treatment of Mind and Consciousness. New protagonists appearing here include neuroscientists Chris Frith (agnostic) and Andrew Newberg (neurothologian), cognitive psychologists Steven Pinker (atheist) and Justin Barrett (Christian), ID blogger Denyse O’Leary, Christian philosophers Keith Ward and Alvin Plantinga and, perhaps the least expected, composer John Rutter. Their debate is pleasant and quite informative, but not deep. Unsurprisingly, the “hard problem” of consciousness is (as O’Leary remarks) not solved. Much more surprisingly, given the participation of both Frith and Newberg, no brain scans, either PET or fMRI, are shown, despite being “sit-up-and-beg” opportunities for vivid illustration.

But Iain Morris and his team evidently wanted to give all possible time to three matters of lay, but strong, experience. The first is the near-death experience. This, of course, has been the subject of a good deal of scientific investigation, but here it is presented through a powerful individual account, and comments led by neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick. The other experiences are conversions − a woman’s from a life with drugs, and those of several men from violent crime. There is no science here, and the aspiration to even-handed balance between religious and non-religious sides has effectively been cast aside: the atheists and agnostics are allowed to comment, but the material on which they comment points all one way.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the groups whom I perceive as the principle audiences for the series will not object to this bias, but will debate the cases as they stand. In all three DVDs they will encounter a massive supply of material to get their teeth into, and I believe will find it both vividly and challengingly presented. Particularly if steered by a leader versed in the Study Guide, they will come away much better informed, and at least a little clearer about what they think, and why. When one considers the number of such people who will be reached by one pack of three DVDs, this surely makes each pack exceptional value for money.

Neil Spurway,

University of Glasgow

Iain Morris (producer/director): Exploring the God Question: Science, God and the Search for Truth. Hamilton, UK: Search for Truth Enterprises Ltd, 2013. Three DVDs £36/€43. DVDs + Study Guide (84 pp., ISBN 978-0-9576023-0-4) £39/€ 45. DVDs + Study Guide + Leader’s Manual (72 pp., ISBN 978-0-9576023-1-1) £45/€54

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Neil Spurway