On 23/02/2012 Oxford’s grand Sheldonian Theatre was host to a debate between the two of the University’s former professors: the leader of the Anglican Church worldwide and the world’s most well-known critic of religion. Far from an angry exchange, it was a surprisingly quiet and amiable discussion in which the pair seemed quite evenly matched. There certainly wasn’t a clear winner.
(In the few notes that follow I am biased not only by my Christianity and consequent affinity with Dr. Williams, but also by my personal knowledge of the subject area which is responsible for which particular points were of most interest to me.)
Philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny (who was chairing the discussion) established that both parties accepted the authority of logic and of science, and an evolutionary understanding of the human species. Williams described human beings as characterised by a truth-seeking nature, self-reflective subjective experience and language use. Language-use is itself characterised by intentionality– the directedness of language, its ability to be about something. He also pointed out that we are part of a feedback system, we are not only affected by the universe but also affect it in turn.
Dawkins agreed with this description. Although there is a very gradual development of cognitive capacities among primates, he said, there is something of an unexpected jump in humans. Human thought alone has syntax, that is, by distinguishing between different categories of words such as adverbs and nouns, it can manipulate much more detailed information. This development is not random without God, since the random data from the behaviour of living beings is filtered by the non-random process of natural selection.
Williams said that it was suggestive of the ultimate nature of reality that we live in a universe where consciousness is not only possible, but inevitable given evolution. He clarified that the philosophical sense of the term consciousness means not just awareness, but the capacity for self-reflection- he quoted the words of St. Augustine: “I have become a question unto myself”. This self reflective capacity facilitates what Williams understands as the soul: the story of someone’s life.
As Dawkins had agreed that humans are conscious in this way, Kenny pointed out that unlike Dawkins, Williams believes that the soul can live on after a person dies. Williams stated that in his view it is not that the soul is immortal in the ordinary course of events, but that with the death of living beings, God would choose to preserve relationships that had blossomed with him. This doesn’t mean a soul being artificially separated from a dead person, but rather the person being kept alive (though obviously not in this spatio-temporal realm).
Another reason why Dawkins holds that human beings do not have souls in the way that Williams belives is because he thinks our thoughts and actions are all determined by prior physical causes (not necessarily involving our genes). Reference was made to the famous experiments of the physiologist Benjamin Libet, who is often held to have disproved the existence of free will. Williams and Kenny then raised some of the objections to Libet’s conclusions. Kenny pointed out that the experiment presupposes the kind of naïve view of free will (as a sort of ‘ghost in the machine’) that Dawkins would agree was a straw man. Its conclusions are only shocking because we assume that free will requires that the conscious experience of having made a decision comes first, and that this somehow causes the brain activity of deciding, but there is no reason why that would have to be the case.
Williams mentioned that the experiment’s results can only be generalised to incredibly simple decisions, and not those which are important examples of free choice, such as choosing who to marry. Just because it would be impossible to set up an experiment to test these sorts of things doesn’t mean that we can jump to conclusions. Dawkins said that he wasn’t sure that we didn’t have free will, but of course this was an issue for the Archbishop because he has to believe that we do have free will.
They then talked about the origin of the human species in particular. They agreed that there wasn’t a definitive first human being. Williams said that it is not the case that God intervenes in nature to attach a soul to each and every human being; God, he said “does not micro-manage”. Dawkins seemed to think that the Pope thought differently, though I think this is probably a confusion based on the different terminology used. Williams, after all, was following the Catholic understanding of the soul as the form of the body (i.e. rather than as a distinct spiritual substance).
They then discussed abiogenesis. Dawkins believes that the first self-replicating molecule wasn’t DNA because it is too complex and doesn’t have another useful function, whereas RNA is a useful protein. The most popular theory today is the RNA world theory. DNA meets the condition for a language that its components are heterogeneous: elements distinct from one another are able to function as signifiers. With some hesitation Dawkins agreed with Williams that the universe is structured so as to promote information, in addition to self-consciousness.
As the end of the discussion neared Kenny wanted to stoke a more animated argument about the reality of God, inviting Dawkins to explain the central argument of the his book The God Delusion. But, similar to how he refused to debate this topic with William Lane Craig, he seemed rather reluctant to do so. The way in which he described ‘the ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’ in the discussion seemed to reduce to the argument to the assertion that God is superfluous as an explanation in science, an assertion which is of course committed to the very dubious assumption that theology is a sub-field of science.
Somewhat frustrated, Kenny tried to throw in a quick summary of how the argument is summarised in the book- that anything complex enough to have created the universe must be so complex to have only evolved as a result of millions of years of evolution. He then mentioned one of the chief objections to this, that natural selection only explains away complexity in something that is complex in composition, and while God has complex functions, ‘he’ is not compositionally complex- God is not made of anything. Thus, a consciousness who authored the information for the universe would not need to have evolved.
Williams agreed with this but was left with nothing of his own to add. Kenny pointed out that theists are often guilty of a kind of doublespeak by reasoning out a God who they are happy to point out is simple, but at the same time use more and more complicated doctrines about him for other purposes.
Lastly, Dawkins implied that we should be atheists because it is beautiful for the universe to have developed out of itself, but it struck me that his is a very personal judgement of beauty (indeed Dawkins’ philosophy –but not atheism per se– prohibits objective beauty), for many people the idea of a self-creating universe seems positively ugly as something repugnant to reason.