January 8, 2009
Does Johnny Ball Support Intelligent Design?When I were a lad. growing up in t'North of England, we would sit thee down in front of t'Telly and watch "Think Of A Number" with Johnny Ball.
Johnny Ball, for those of you who've not had the pleasure, is a nuclear-powered ball of energy and enthusiasm who mesmerised generations of schoolkids with TV shows that made maths, science and technology fun and interesting in exactly the same way that our own teachers didn't.
Along with shows like Dr Who and Star Trek, Johnny Ball is very probably one of the reasons why I went through the door marked "Science" when it came time to choose my pigeonhole in life.
Johnny Ball has influenced millions of would-be scientists and engineers (and, yes, computer programmers, who are - let's be honest now - pseudo-scientists and faux engineers at times). Which is why my internal how-very-dare-they-o-meter went off the scale when I read this paragraph in his blog post for November:
"In today's multi racial classrooms, surely their example is an ideal way of tackling the modern problems of religious differences. For every one of us, religion is part of our family character, our roots and our upbringing. If we all believe that there was a creator, and both science and our own daily observations surely suggest there had to be some guiding hand in producing life itself in all it's glory, then one wonderful way to serve God, is in ignoring our religious differences, and together through science, improve our understanding of how it all works?"
With the Horlicks coarsing through my veins and the midnight oil a-burning, I felt compelled to write a letter to the email address on the site, which Johnny may or may not read because I imagine he's a pretty busy guy. But even if he doesn't read it, it got it all out of my system. (Which is why I'm writing this blog post now; because it's completely out of my system and I'm not obsessed about it at all):
I'm a huge fan of all the great work Johnny has done over the decades to communicate and promote understanding of maths, science and technology to generations of kids (yes, I was one once, and I never missed "Think Of A Number")
I'm a Physics graduate working in the software industry, and also a rationalist and humanist (and, yes, an atheist).
I was reading Johnny's November blog post, when I had to do a bit of a double-take at this passage:
"If we all believe that there was a creator, and both science and our own daily observations surely suggest there had to be some guiding hand in producing life itself in all itís glory, then one wonderful way to serve God, is in ignoring our religious differences, and together through science, improve our understanding of how it all works?"
I would be very interested to know what scientific observations lend any credence to the idea that life must have been intelligently designed, as Johnny strongly suggests here. The complexity and diversity of life is widely accepted in scientific circles to be a product of hundreds of millions or even billions of years of cycles of reproduction, mutation and natural selection, and if life is so complex and improbable that it could only have been brought about by God and could not have come about spontaneously through natural physical processes, then surely that raises the paradox "but who made God?", since such a being would surely be more complex and even more improbable than his creations.
It's easy to list pre-20th century scientists as theists because back then recanting your faith was considered somewhat of a dangerous sport. And Johnny is being a bit naughty in failing to list the very large numbers (the majority, in fact) of 20th Century scientists who were/are agnostics and atheists, like Einstein, Sagan, Dawkins (obviously), Dirac, Feynman, Freud, Schrodinger, Asimov, Planck, Weinberg, Marie Curie, Gould, Susan Greenfield, Higgs, de Sautoy, Watson, Hawking, Ginzburg and hundreds of others who are on record about their faith (or lack thereof). And Darwin is also on record as professing himself to be an agnostic in his forties, writing "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic."
While we cannot empirically prove the non-existence of a supernatural creator, given the total lack of scientific evidence of any kind and all the logical paradoxes such an idea raises, I can't see how belief in such a thing and the scientific method can go hand-in-hand. To be frank, I think Johnny is mistaken or misguided in suggesting such a thing. They are completely separate aspects of life and should remain so. Religion has no place in the physics or chemistry lab.
To accept anything on pure faith is the exact opposite of scientific, and I worry deeply that someone who commands the affection and respect of generations of would-be scientists and engineers is openly muddying those waters. To me, it's vital that children grow up able to think critically and apply rigorous logic to everything in life - not just things that come in a box marked "science". When people grow up believing that ideas based on faith have equal veracity or validity to ideas based on evidence - well, we need only look to the horrific situation in Gaza today to see where that can lead.
Otherwise, a jolly good web site and please keep up the great work :-)
Posted 9 years, 5 months ago on January 8, 2009