11 October 2011

Nugent's Nonsense: Spilt Ink in the Irish Times, Part 2

I'm getting to a point where I think I should be submitting articles to the Irish Times. It seems clear they'll publish any old muck, and will pay for it too. This week sees Michael Nugent attempting to put the first shreds of meat on the feeble argumentative bones he advanced last week, and it's far from a successful attempt.

God is not a 'god' (small 'g')
Mr Nugent starts this week's post with the following statement:
'There is good evidence that our universe came about naturally, which is more persuasive than the evidence that it was created by a god (small "g"). And there is good evidence that humans invented the idea of gods, which is more persuasive than the evidence that gods exist.'
Now, the first thing is that it's disappointing to see this 'a god' nonsense being trotted out, especially with the heavy-handed aside that we should note how Nugent spells the word with a 'small "g"'. As I explained last week, this this a massive category mistake; it seems logic's not Mr Nugent's strong point. There is not merely a different of degree between, say, Aristotle's Uncaused Cause and Homer's Zeus; there is a fundamental difference of kind between the latter, a mere 'god', and the former, identifiable with God as understood by the great monotheistic religions.

This isn't a mere pedantic distinction, as blurring these categories is a rhetorical trick indulged in far too often by those who either don't know or don't care that the terms 'God' and 'a god' are radically different. I have never met anybody who's believed that the Universe was created by 'a god', and I'm not aware of anyone who believes that there's evidence that 'gods' exist.

If you pay attention to the rest of the article, you'll also note that Nugent offers no evidence for his view that the Universe came about naturally, or indeed that humans invented the idea of gods. The latter point, at least, is hardly surprising, given that the more-than-11,000-year-old temple remains at Göbekli Tepe show that humans were religious in an era before what we normally call civilization. There is no evidence that this prehistoric religion was an 'invention'; how could there be? Does Nugent have access to prehistorical writings that detail how it'd be fun to tell people of life having a meaning beyond that which meets the eye? 

Another false contrast, Michael?
Onward he trundles, bizarrely contrasting science with theology as though they both were directed towards the same ends, despite one being the study of nature and the other being the study of God:
'... what scientists like Dawkins typically mean by evolution theory is the study of how biological life evolved after it came about. The study of how biological life first came about is called abiogenesis.The study of how our universe developed from the instant it began to expand is called cosmology. And science has consistently proved a more reliable way of studying all of these questions than has theology, which is like discussing the rules of quidditch with people who believe that Harry Potter is a documentary.'
I'm not entirely sure how much theology he's read, such that he feels so confident in dismissing it in this fashion, but I suspect it's very little, at least to judge by how he seems convinced that theology has ever really been devoted to the question of how the Universe developed or how life first came about. I'd be curious to know how many theologians have ever studied these question in the context of theology; as there can't be many of them, such questions being largely outside the theological remit. I can't even think what branch of theology such questions would fall within.

That said, it is worth noting that around 400 AD, the most influential Christian theologian of them all, St Augustine of Hippo, argued that the Scriptural accounts of Creation in Genesis were clearly intended as poetic expressions of deep truths about the Universe and not as a scientific description of how the world came into being. While exhorting Christians to learn more -- scientifically -- about the Universe, Augustine argued that God must have brought the Universe into existence in a single moment of creation, but endowed it with the capacity to develop, containing as it does divinely ordained causalities that can later emerge or evolve, arguing also that time is as much an element of the created order as space. Surprisingly modern, eh?

The Harry Potter reference, for what it's worth, is rather insulting, not to mention remarkably stupid. In what sense is theology like discussing the rules of Quidditch with people who think Harry Potter is a documentary? Harry Potter is intended as fiction, as an entertainment and nothing more, such that anyone who thought mistook it for a documentary would have to have missed the point in a spectacular fashion. Is Mr Nugent really claiming that theologicans miss the point of -- say -- the Bible, and that the Bible was never meant to be taken seriously? Because if he really is saying that, I think it's pretty clear who's missing the point.

But then, as we've already seen last week, it appears that neither reading ability or clear thinking are among Mr Nugent's strengths.

A Curious Gap
And so, misrepresenting religion as a kind of science-substitute dependent on a 'God of the Gaps', Mr Nugent considers the Big Bang, reeling off a list of scientists -- Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Thomas Wright, Edwin Hubble, and John A. Gowan -- whose work led, incrementally, to our current understanding of the Universe. For some reason he omits Georges Lemaître, the Belgian astronomer and professor of physics who first postulated the Big Bang theory. Can you imagine why this might be? Three explanations spring immediately to mind. 
  1. Nugent doesn't know what he's talking about.
  2. Nugent is embarrassed that his Wikipedia entry is longer than that of the man who came up with the idea of the Big Bang theory, and thinks it's better if he doesn't draw attention to this fact, as it might cause people to suspect that he's been bigging himself up.
  3. Nugent is fully aware that his thesis would be somewhat inconvenienced by the fact of the Big Bang theory having been the brainchild of a Catholic priest -- for so Lemaître was, as well as being an astronomer and physicist, eventually becoming a Monsignor and a member of the Pontifical  Academy of Sciences.
I suppose it could be a mixture of all three.

Something Comes from Nothing (as long as that Nothing is Something)
Nugent crows about the consistent pattern of scientific explanations 'relentlessly replacing theological answers,' though I'm not sure what examples of such he has in mind, and then says that given this pattern he's confident that if there's a meaningful answer to the question of what preceded the Big Bang, it'll be a natural one, identifiable by science; Nugent is confident that however the Universe came into being, 'a god' had nothing to do with it:
'We are most likely to find the answer to this question in the field of quantum physics. This shows that, at a subatomic level, random energy fluctuations can and do cause tiny particles to randomly come into and go out of existence. And Stephen Hawking in his latest work suggests that these fluctuations plus gravity could have brought our universe into existence without inventing a god.'
Yes, just look at that for a minute, because it seems that Nugent takes seriously an argument that proposes that the Universe could have spontaneously come into existence, provided it was preceded by the natural phenomenon that is gravity, itself being a property of matter. Yes, you read that right. He's saying that the Universe could have come into existence, providing it already existed.

I know, this is a bit unfair: you'd not know it from Nugent's article, but Hawking doesn't really mean the Universe when he uses the word 'universe'. Rather, he's postulating that 'our' universe is a space-time contiuum which is just one of many such, which we might call a system of universes. Not that there's any evidence whatsoever for this, or any scientifically meaningful way of testing such a hypothesis, but whoever let such niceties stop people wheeling out untestable speculations while burbling about the 'scientific method'?

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