October 20, 2009

Hugh Hewitt's Faith

I'm driving home after an enormously stressful day at work.  My conservative buddy calls me up on the way, so I pull over and take the call.  (Unlike Maria Shriver, I'm ready to concede that the no-cell-phone-while-driving law applies to me.)  He tells me that he's listening to this really interesting interview with his man Hugh Hewitt and my man Richard Dawkins.  I try and find it myself, but the station my buddy is listening to in Los Angeles is just not coming in very clearly up here north of the Santa Susannas.

But it turns out that there is a transcript of the interview available online.  And it is mostly a very good interview indeed.  I have to take what I know of the personality of both men and infer when they are being humorous with one another -- like when Dawkins complains that he feels like he's being cross-examined by a lawyer, and Hewitt responds that he is a lawyer, and Dawkins makes a big show of complaining about that.  I assumed that they were joshing with one another, although it's possible that they weren't because swords had been drawn at that point.

The bulk of the interview, appropriately enough, is about evolution and the evidence for it.  Only towards the end does Hewitt take on Dawkins' atheism, and then it gets a little bit ugly and less intelligent.  Frankly, on both sides, for a while, when Hewitt tried to argue that Dawkins unfairly dismisses contemporaneous evidence of Jesus' divinity and miracle-working -- a subject upon which I have recently done quite a lot of research myself, so Hewitt looks to me to be making an attack on a false premise.  Which does not excuse Dawkins from taking the bait and reacting badly to it.

But the better exchange between the two came towards the end, when the subject of suffering and imperfections in the world were discussed.  Dawkins has the easier position, I think -- a world without an intelligent designer does not need to apologize for the existence of suffering; suffering is a byproduct of natural selection which inherently requires competition for scarce resources resulting in harm to individuals.  Hewitt, however, argues that suffering and imperfections (for instance, flaws in the human eye like the blind spot and image inversion) may be part of a design to the universe that is orders of magnitude more subtle than the simplistically beneficent designer that Dawkins might have hoped for:
HH: Do you read any fiction at all?

RD: Of course.

HH: What’s the most complicated bit of fiction you’ve read? Like War and Peace?

RD: Yeah, what’s your point? What point are you making?

HH: That complexity in design, and counterintuitive steps, et cetera, don’t disprove the idea of genius at work. Genius at work often works through complexity and through misdirection.

RD: I think that what you’re kind of saying is that God made the world look as though it had evolved in order to test our faith, when it didn’t evolve.

HH: No, not test our faith. I’m saying that the world has been made as it is to allow for faith, because if it was made too easy for the simple-minded, it would simply be routine, and everyone would believe, and then there would be no faith.

RD: That would be a pretty unpleasant sort of God. I think, I would say you’re welcome to believe in a kind of God who would do that, but it’s not the kind of God that would appeal to me.

HH: Well, it’s not about what appeals to us, it’s about what is. And you also write that a beneficent designer might, you’d idealistically think, minimize suffering. But not if the soul was infinite, and suffering was necessary for its wisdom.

RD: No, that’s true. I, once again, you’re welcome to that belief, if that’s what you want to believe. There’s a far more parsimonious explanation for suffering, which is natural selection.

Now, here's where there is some real interesting stuff going on.  Hewitt's position (which I disagree with) is relatively sophisticated -- the soul is infinite, or has infinite potential, but cannot  grow and mature and become fully-realized without suffering of some kind.  And, just because we might want the creator to have designed the universe in such a way as to have minimized suffering does not mean that the creator necessarily is that way.  These are intelligent and worthwhile points -- assuming that one concedes a) the existence of a creator in the first place and b) the existence of souls in at least human beings.  Hewitt also has no trouble conceding evolution and the idea of an old Earth; he is not married to the idea of Biblical literalism, which strikes me as a smart thing for a believer to do -- understand the history and allegory of the holy book, and use it as a tool from which one can extract moral guidance and advice for how to live one's life.

The act of faith he describes as necessary for the soul to self-actualize is something that sounds like it is quite sophisticated, complex, and most of all, difficult to do in a complete or meaningful way.  If he has done it, and found happiness in it, good for him.  And I also like that -- at least in this exchange -- neither Hewitt nor Dawkins dumb down their arguments, and indeed they both short-circuit a number of the predicate "baby step" arguments and propositions that I've heard so many tedious times before.  They get right to the meat of it.

Now, I think ultimately, the creator that Hewitt is describing ultimately boils down to being a God of the Gaps.  Science will eventually whittle that God of the Gaps down to pretty much nothing -- most of the origin story in the book of Genesis, for instance, is reduced to the creation of clever self-replicating chemical processes.  But Hewitt's notion of what faith is has intellectual appeal to me because the act of faith is something that seems very difficult to me indeed.  It is not as simple or as easy as driving your car down the road and "having faith" that the other driver isn't going to hit you -- an explanation that has been offered to me on more than one occasion by more than one well-intentioned but hopelessly simplistic missionary.  It dovetails with other notions that I have about Christianity when practiced well -- it is a difficult and demanding moral code, it requires a strong personal commitment by the Christian, and it is something that one must internalize because wearing it on your sleeve is entirely beside the point of the exercise.

So, it reminds me that there is much about my religious friends I can admire despite not sharing their faith.  And at the end of the interview, one is left with the impression that there is some respect between the interviewer and interviewee, which is rare enough that it leave a nice taste in the reader's mouth.


Roberto G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roberto G said...

I am a Christian (of the calvinist variety) and I heard Hugh's interview in its entirety. I found it extremely telling that Dr. Dawkins attempt to draw attention to Hugh's belief in a minor miracle in order to ridicule it. After all, Dawkins knows very well that Jesus' turning water into wine does not occupy the place of a cornerstone in the Christian belief system. He knows very well that where Christian faith and Science intersect are the big issues: creation ex nihilo, cosmology, physics, the fine tuning of the universe as a brute fact versus purposeful, the beginning of life on earth, evolution braodly defined, chance versus guided descent of life, etc. His attempt at ridicule only served to distract from the difficulties of defending both his overarching philosophy of science and the particular details of his book Hugh was questioning him about at that portion of the interview.

Now, I'm not saying that Dawkins' position is absolutely untenable. He is an eminent biologist and a gifted writer. However, for some odd reason he chose to try to turn the table on Hugh in order to ridicule him(and by extention, all Christians' belief in miracles) when he could have simply answered the questions about his new book.

Unlike Dawkins' disingenuous dismay at Hugh's faith in miracles, I was not dismayed at his supreme confidence in science. I have come to realize that all people will place their supreme confidence in something for whatever they consider the issue that matters most. Dawkins' supreme confidence in science, his faith, will one day either be confirmed or disconfirmed. Just like mine.

Burt Likko said...

Roberto, I don't know how you can call turning water into wine a "minor miracle." I agree that this story doesn't significantly impact the moral message Jesus preached. But the authors of the Gospels thought the event was important enough to include it in their writings. Why? Moreover, Hewitt, a thoughtful Christian and an experienced forensic, unhesitatingly endorsed and defended the water-to-wine story. Why? Because the story is significant to the Christian faith.

The water-to-wine story (like the fishes-and-loaves story, the faith healing stories, the walking-on-water story, and so on) is offered as evidence that Jesus was not merely a rabbi who got a raw deal from the Romans, but instead that Jesus was actually God. The laws of physics and reality didn't apply to him; he could do things that only God could do. That means that a) we should worship Jesus as God, and b) Jesus' message is a direct communication from God to man. Seems to me that those propositions are cornerstones in the Christian belief system. That's why the miracle stories are in the Gospels, and that's why when they are criticized by skeptics, Christians defend the miracle stories.

Now, as a physical proposition, turning water into wine is kind of a big deal. Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. Wine consists (mostly) of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. So to turn water into wine, you need to somehow get a lot of carbon into the system, and then artfully arrange the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms into a fairly precise blend of water, sugar, ethyl alcohol, and tannins. As a matter of physics, this is impossible because you can't make carbon out of hydrogen short of a compound fusion reaction, the likes of which would have been like dropping an H-bomb on Nazareth. And the story doesn't go that Jesus "added grape juice to the water and got wine," the story goes that he transformed water into wine. If true, this would have been a significant deviation from the laws of physics. And as an extraordinary claim, it requires extraordinary evidence.

And I disagree with your assignment of blame for Dawkins not "simply answer[ing] the questions about his new book". That's what Dawkins was doing for the first three segments of the interview -- when Hewitt was asking questions about the book. But Hewitt changed the subject from evidence for evolution in Dawkins' new book to atheism-versus-theism (Dawkins' previous book) in the fourth and fifth segments of the interview. The interviewee reacts to the subject raised by the interviewer.

I don't think either man came off 100% perfect, but I do think it was an extremely interesting, smart, and worthwhile exchange.

Roberto G said...

The reason I call the transformation of water into wine a minor miracle is because relative to all the other supernatural events in the Bible, turning water into wine is very, very minor. The reasons you adduced for the Gospel writers' inclusion of it and other miracles in their accounts are partially correct (that is beside my point). However, since you brought it up, the evidence for Jesus being God from miracles attributed to him is distinct from the claim that Jesus is God. The former is secondary while the latter is primary.
I do believe Dawkins is sufficiently informed and knowledgeable on what relative place various things occupy in the Christian system of belief that his questioning of this particular miracle came off as subterfuge.

Unknown said...

Perhaps religion is a manifestation of social evolution. It may exist, both broadly and persistently, because it "works" within a social system much the same way that bicameral vision and opposable thumbs work in terms of physical evolution. That is to say that those physical traits are advantageous to survival and continuation of the species, and therefore it may be true that adherence to religious beliefs is similarly advantageous to a society. This could be a reasonable scientific explanation for the emergence of religion, faith, and the concept of God.

Roberto G said...

"Perhaps", "may", "it may be true"...
"This could be a reasonable scientific explanation for the emergence of religion, faith, and the concept of God."
I appreciate the humility with which these conjectures are offered. Such humility is appropriate for any "scientific explanation" of religion or anything else for that matter. The nature of science demands such humility.

alwander said...

Miracles and evolution, think programming:
Don't you find it pretty amazing that a simple obtuse molecule can with the aid of even simpler 'helper' molecules (which bring in components for the next part of the chain) manufacture the complete DNA of a human being and get it right. Are we to believe it ?? Where does THAT kind of intelligence come from ?
Not from any kind of school for GIFTED molecules. How many PHD's can sit down with a science toy / DNA tinker toy and with out a chart build any thing approximating functioning human DNA, never mind the real thing!
Perhaps it's mans definition of God that is small, the universe SHOUTS the existence of God. Perhaps modern man is no more adept at reading ’portent/ meaning’ of bones then a witch doctor. We are the product of the assembler molecules that made us what we are , how can we ascribe such Genius to mere chance ? Teleology is partisan almost by definition , determining who is right and why is wearisome. Of the whys I do not know but I believe as David that “ only a fool says in his heart there is no god”.

Burt Likko said...

DNA is hardly a 'simple' molecule but I readily agree that the process is quite amazing and replicating it is currently beyond the reach of science and technology. It will not always be this way, however. As for where DNA came from, I suggest that you start your research here.

alwander said...

I was pleased you responded to my post BUT when you said "DNA is hardly a 'simple' molecule…”, I am not sure you responded to what I wrote which was not that 'DNA was simple', BUT that THE MOLECULE that assembled it was. The real marvel is that DNA is composed by "idiot/ brainless" assembler molecules. Hence I said : "We are the product of the assembler molecules that made us (thru our DNA) what we are ". How can it be that brainless machines / assembler molecules stitched together, with no apparent aid, our DNA. Do re-read will you please. I have seen several nice Harvard videos that illustrate the process. Nice discussion.

EnnisP said...

TL, for an atheist you articulate the Christian faith as well as any Christian I know. In fact, better than most. Thanks for being fair in your assessment of the interview and in the discussion.