The Science Show versus God

Saturday 4 November 2006 12:00PM (view full episode)

This week Richard Dawkins' remarkable book The God Delusion is released in Australia. Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford says he hopes that reading his book will make believers doubt their faith. He explains why he is so convinced, through the weight of scientific evidence, that atheism is the more valid viewpoint. Two winners of the Templeton Prize, given for building bridges between spiritual values and science, Professors John Barrow from Cambridge and Paul Davies now in Arizona give alternative views.


[music: Benedictus, from Requiem W. A. Mozart]

Robyn Williams: On today's Science Show, Richard Dawkins wants to convince you that God is a delusion, that people like Einstein who used to refer to God, didn't believe at all, and that even some priests are only pretending.

Richard Dawkins: I'm not setting out to be antagonistic, I'm setting out to be true. I do feel passionately about what's true, as any scientist should.

Robyn Williams: Fine music, lofty sentiments, but according to Dawkins, a seductive distraction. His book The God Delusion is published this week. Richard Dawkins is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. Thirty years ago he brought out The Selfish Gene. So, as an evolutionary biologist, he must have some idea of where religion came from, given its ubiquity.

Richard Dawkins: I am a Darwinian, and it very often is put to me; what is the Darwinian survival value of religion? I think it is necessary that anything that is as ubiquitous as religious belief's like sexual desire, that's equally ubiquitous...there are some exceptions; not everybody has the same kind of sexual desire, but essentially it is a universal and therefore it does demand a Darwinian explanation. But the main point I want to make about that is that you don't necessarily apply the Darwinian explanation to the object of your own interest which is, in this case, religion. It could be that it's a by-product of something else. We could be asking the wrong question when we say, 'What's the Darwinian survival value of religion?' Religion per se may not have a survival value, may not contribute to our survival or our reproduction, but something in our psychology contributes to our survival and reproduction, or did, and generates religion under the right circumstances, perhaps as a by-product.

I use the analogy of the tendency for moths to fly into candle flames which looks like a kind of suicidal self-sacrificing behaviour, and you can ask the question; what's the Darwinian survival value of suicidal behaviour in moths? Which is obviously a rather paradoxical question. What you've got to do is rephrase the question and say, well, maybe the reason the moths fly into the candle flame is that candles didn't exist during most of the years when moths were evolving. The only light that you ever saw at night would be at optical infinity. Many insects are known to maintain a fixed compass direction, to use the distant light, things like the moon and the stars, as a compass. If you maintain an acute angle to a source of light and that source of light is not at optical infinity, if it's only a couple of feet away, then what you do is you describe a logarithmic spiral into the candle flame. So it was the wrong question to say, 'What's the survival value of flying into candle flames?' You should say, 'What's the survival value of having the kind of nervous system that maintains a fixed angle to light sources at night?' Now you've got it, it's a very good compass, but it doesn't work when candles have been invented.

Similarly, there may have been something about some predisposition in human psychology which in our ancestors did indeed help our survival. Something like obey the tribal elders, something of that sort. Believe what you're told by people in authority. Or as a child, believe what your parents tell you. That psychological predisposition, and perhaps a few others as well, may manifest itself as religion under the right conditions. For example, if you take the children's tendency to believe their parents, the human species, especially the child, is very, very dependent upon traditional knowledge. Children would be dead if they applied the experimental sceptical method to questions like going near a cliff edge and falling over the precipice. You have to believe your parents when they tell you...

Robyn Williams: You can't do your own thing in the jungle.

Richard Dawkins: You can't do your own experiments. It's built into the nervous system of children. Believe your parents; just like a computer that is constructed to obey instructions given in the correct programming language. You can't have a computer that won't be susceptible to computer viruses. Similarly, you can't build a computer that's good at being programmed at doing useful jobs but at the same time is immune to computer viruses. I think religion is like a computer virus. The child nervous system is programmed to believe what its parents tell it, and that means it cannot have any method of discriminating the good instructions, like don't go near the cliff edge, don't eat the red berries, from bad instructions like do a rain dance in order to make the rains come or something of that sort.

Robyn Williams: That's understandable. You've got the tendency as a baby who has to be fairly open to learning because you're needing to adapt to continually changing circumstances and you use your brain to do so, you have to have the capacity to learn. And so you obey your parents and therefore you have a capacity to obey. The thing that I find extraordinary is that so many aspects of religion are just so cruel; they create wars and mayhem, and the history that you allude say, well, if you do not have God then you would not have, perhaps, the Crusades, or the Inquisition. Why is it that the willingness to learn of a child led to the horrors which are just counterproductive in terms of survival?

Richard Dawkins: That's a very good point, and I don't really have a very good answer. I suppose my answer so far would work with any kind of arbitrary nonsense. Once you've got this rule that the child brain is susceptible to false information as well as true, any old rubbish, whatever it is, you have annexed the notion. But we could go one further and say why this particular rubbish rather than that rubbish? I mean, dancing to appease the rain gods is a fairly harmless thing to do. You could then say, well, are there some religious ideas which are not any old idea but they spread for a positive reason, there's actually some positive reason why they should spread. I think it's easy enough to see that the idea of faith as a virtue...not only do you believe what your parents say but you take positive pride in throwing out any evidence that might contradict it, you can see why that might spread, believe not only what your parents tell you but actually be hostile towards rival beliefs. It's easy to see that that might spread because it is kind of self-protecting. From there to killing spreaders of rival beliefs is not that far. So I think you can build up a kind of Darwinian story, not just for why arbitrary rubbish survives but why particular kinds of rubbish survive, because they actually take steps (rather like genes do) to survive by killing the opposition, in some cases by being positively the idea that you survive your own death, it's easy to see why that might survive. So you can put together a collection of stories about why certain beliefs spread rather than other beliefs spread, and some of those will have these extremely negative consequences, like killing the purveyors of rival beliefs.

Robyn Williams: I often wonder about this question of the negative because if you think about religions, many of them have got harsh rules and people fall into line; they give up music, they give up wine, they give up sex, a number of things. And many of the religions which involve having a frolic and having a jolly nice time with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, like the Orange People and so on, don't last. What is there, one wonders, about the human makeup that goes in for this self-flagellation and all the nasty bits.

Richard Dawkins: That is fascinating. I don't have an answer to that and thank you to calling it to my attention. I look froward to looking into that.

Robyn Williams: Trouble is there's so much about the universe that's just so neat. This is how we summed it up in The Science Show earlier this year. Paul Davies.

Paul Davies: In the present state of our knowledge, the 20-odd parameters that appear in the standard model of particle physics seem to just be completely free, they're not determined by any underlying theory. But what is clear is that if some of them have values even a little bit different from those that they do, then there could be no life in the universe. In addition to the parameters that appear in particle physics, there are others that determine such things as the number of dimensions of space and the size and content of the universe.

Martin Redfern: And in particular, there's the size of the universe, subject of one of the first entries in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

excerpt from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a truly remarkable book. The introduction starts like this: 'Space,' it says, 'is big, really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the street to the chemist but that's just peanuts to space. Listen...' and so on.

Martin Redfern: According to John Barrow of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, the seemingly lonely, unfriendly vastness of space is in fact anthropically selected.

John Barrow: Many philosophers, from Bertrand Russell backwards, have argued that the enormous size and emptiness of the universe is a signature that it is neither sympathetic nor terribly conducive to the development of life within it. Now, modern astronomy changes this whole perception of the universe completely. You see, the universe is expanding and this expansion means that the size of the universe is inextricably bound up with its age, and the reason the universe is so large is that it's so old.

Its enormous age is no accident. You see, we're made out of complicated molecules of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and phosphorous that can do very complicated chemical gymnastics. But those elements of carbon and nitrogen and oxygen don't just appear ready-made in the Big Bang, they're made in the stars by a long process of nuclear alchemy. And when stars exhaust their fuel and die, they explode in supernovae and spread all these biological elements around the universe.

That process takes billions of years to complete and so you begin to see why it's necessary that the universe is billions of years old if it's to contain the building blocks of any type of living complexity. And because it's expanding it therefore has to be billions of light years in size as well. If the universe was significantly smaller, say just the size of our Milky Way galaxy, it would be little more than a month old, it could barely pay off your credit card bill let alone produce complexity in life. The universe would have to be every bit as big as it is just to support one lonely outpost of life.

Martin Redfern: Or, as G.K. Chesterton put it, 'The Cosmos is about the smallest hole a man can hide his head in.' And when it comes down to the numbers that govern the behaviour of molecules, atoms and the particles within them, as well as the forces between them, the tuning seems very fine indeed.

Robyn Williams: Martin Redfern, and before him John Barrow. So how does Richard Dawkins tackle the question that the universe seems to have been made from the top down, designed, if you like, for our convenience?

Richard Dawkins: We have two major classes of theory to account for that. One is the God theory, that God designed it to be good to bring us into existence. The other, there are millions and billions of universes, most of them are not suitable for bringing forth life. Because we are here talking about it, we have to be one of the minority of universes which is suitable for it. That's a very anti-God theory. You can do the same thing with respect to planets and it's sort of easier to understand. There are a billion billion planets, so if you assume that the origin of life is a very, very, very improbable event indeed which could...I don't actually think it is but it could have been a very, very improbable event, because there are so many billions of billions of planets, even if the odds against the origin of life are as low as one in a billion, it's still happened on a billion planets, and by the anthropic principle, one of those billion has to be this one because here we are sitting on it.

Robyn Williams: What does that do to the story of the creation of the chosen one, man, in the Bible? I mean, if you've got ETs and all those other creatures that you see in Dr Who spread around the universe, what does that do to the son of man stuff?

Richard Dawkins: I emphasise the astonishing parochial nature of it. In one of my books I think I speculated about the news of the death of Jesus and how far it could have travelled, and you could imagine that if the death of Jesus started travelling outwards from Earth at the time when it happened at the speed of light which is the maximum possible speed it could have done, it has now reached a tiny little sphere around the Earth, it's barely...I mean, the number of stars that it would have reached is extremely small. It is a very parochial view, the whole religious view is a very parochial view.

I'm quite interested in the idea that the ETs that must be out there, almost certainly are out there, some of them, as you say, are going to be hugely more advanced than we are, such that we would see them as gods if we were ever to encounter them, they would be god-like. They would be more god-like than any god that any religion on this Earth has ever dreamed of. Yet, they would not be gods in the sense that they suddenly came into existence or had always existed, they too must have evolved, they must have come into the universe late, because the only way that complicated and statistically improbable things can come into the universe by what Dan Dennett calls a crane, some kind of gradual escalatory process of which the best known as Darwinian natural selection. So I believe there may very well be god-like beings in the universe but they will have had a history, they would have evolved by gradual degrees from simple beginnings, just as we have.

Robyn Williams: If God designed us in his own image, what does that do for ET? Do they simply bypass the fact that there has been no ET discovered yet?

Richard Dawkins: I haven't discussed that particular problem of who is actually made in God's image, I haven't discussed that. I have asked them how they cope with the problem with who made God, and they say, 'That's unfair, that's your scientific voice speaking.' Theologians have always considered that God has always existed, which is a total cop-out because you might as well say, well, in that case, life has always existed. It is an abdication from responsibility to explain and to answer the question.

Robyn Williams: Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion is published this week in Australia. So what about that finely tuned universe, made, so it seems, for our benefit? John Barrow from Cambridge is the latest winner of the Templeton Prize, given for building bridges between science and spirit. What does he make of the Dawkins argument?

John Barrow: He seems to be choosing to interpret the anthropic principle as some type of design argument for the existence of God. Some people do that. It's not something I would recommend, and in astronomy how we use it is that we recognise that there is an over-enthusiastic subscription to a sort of Copernican view of the universe that roughly speaking says that our position in the universe can't be special in any way. And there is some truth in that, but that doesn't mean that our position can't be special in some way. We could not, for example, live at the centre of a star, we could not exist in interstellar space, presumably far from a star. So there are certain respects in which our view of the universe is biased by the fact that we have to be living in the sort of place where life can exist and, more interestingly, at the sort of time when life can exist. This tells us all sorts of unusual things about the universe; the fact that it's big and old and dark and cold, which for hundreds and hundreds of years sceptical philosophers like Bertrand Russell in this century had argued shows you that the universe is actually antithetical to life, very much the Dawkins approach.

But modern astronomy shows you that these rather unappealing features of the universe are actually the necessary conditions for life to exist. The universe has got to be billions of years old if there is enough time for the building blocks of life to be made in the stars, that's where carbon comes from. But if it's expanding and it has to be billions of years old, it also has to be billions of light years in size. You could have a universe that was just the size of our galaxy if you like, it's pretty big, it's got 100 billion stars and planetary systems in it, but it would only be a month old. Similarly, because it has to be so big and so old, it has to have expanded a lot and become very sparse and very cool. On the average there's only one atom in every cubic metre of space, and stars and galaxies are far, far away from one another.

The temperatures of the universe are very low, energies are very low, and that's why the sky is dark at night and the universe looks rather unfriendly and inhospitable. So this is an example of how the time when we have to be existing in the universe necessarily gives us a certain view of it, and so we tend to draw certain metaphysical and theological conclusions about it. But if we are unaware of the bias, the fact that we couldn't exist when the sky was bright and the universe was small and young, we might draw the wrong conclusions. I think Dawkins is simply introducing a straw man, making it appear that everybody wants to use the special conditions that we see around us as an argument for the existence of God, to be an argument against the existence to God if they're un-compelling to somebody.

Robyn Williams: Yes, I think he's saying it's unnecessary in that you can account for the situation without invoking the presence of God.

John Barrow: Yes, people never tend to look much at something as complicated as why we're on a planet with nice properties. We don't really understand how planets form and why our solar system has got the special properties it has. Those properties are very much the properties of its orbits; the planets go around almost in circles, and that means that the planet like the Earth can have a Goldilocks feature, it's just the right sort of distance from the Sun; much closer and we fry, much further away and we freeze. But if the orbits were very elliptical, very oval, you could see that for part of the year you would fry and later in the year you would freeze. What this would mean, I think, in practice over millions of years is that natural selection would have a very tough challenge. You would have to evolve organisms that could cope with massive climatic change over the annual cycle, huge variations in sea level.

Our own situation means there are quite small climatic variations around our year. And, who far I think we've probably found one out of about 200 other planets (and that's a giant one) which go around in pretty circular orbits. All the others go round in highly elliptical orbits. So there's a lot more still to learn about what has to be special about the solar system. But cosmologists don't look at things as local and complicated as planets, they are usually more interested in how the universe came to have crucial large-scale features, how it got to expand for long enough for carbon to form, how it got to expand at just the right rate so that galaxies can form. And of course most topically in recent years, something that is a complete mystery, as to why the universe started to accelerate in its expansion when it was about 75% of its present size. So this is a big mystery. If it had begun just a tiny fraction of time earlier then the acceleration would have stopped any planets and stars forming and nobody would be here to talk about it. So it's rather crucial that we understand what it was that triggered this surge of accelerated expansion in the universe.

Robyn Williams: Any ideas?

John Barrow: Well, we know in a general way what the physical explanation seems to be. It's something that physicists call the vacuum energy of the universe. It's like dusting out your study; there's always a little bit of dust that remains at the end that you can never get rid of in the corners, and the quantum mechanical world is a bit like this. You can never reduce its energy to absolute zero. There's always a little bit of so-called ground state energy remaining. We've known for a long time that if the universe has this ground state energy around it must be very, very, very small, so small that for many, many years physicists were thinking, well, I'd bet it's actually zero for the universe, dead zero, and that there's some deep principle of physics which if only we could uncover it would tell us that it has to be zero.

People were content to just sit and wait and ignore it. But then lots of astronomical observers got together in two teams in the 1980s and 1990s and discovered that this ground state energy is not zero, it has an absolutely tiny value but it's not zero. And that tiny value actually is enough to accelerate the expansion. So the mystery then is...we think we know in general terms what this energy might be but why does it have this strange tiny value, so small that it doesn't overwhelm the universe earlier but not so small that you never know anything about it. And the embarrassing thing is that if you went first to the particle physicists and say, well, you claim to understand what this energy is, can you calculate it? They'd say, yes, we know how to calculate this. They calculate it, give you the answer, and the answer is unfortunately 10 120 bigger than what we see. So this is the biggest mistake that anyone has ever made in science perhaps, and if you take the usual dodges to get out of this and say, well, let's just assume that the universe starts out with a value of this energy exactly plugged in to be what we see today...and usually that little cheat works, but for this quantity it doesn't because every so often the universe goes through a change of phase of the energy fields of elementary particles within it, and when it does this quantity gets set back up to the enormous value that the physicists first calculated.

So if you want to set the universe up with the tiny value that you see today, you can do that but every so often it will get reset to a huge anomalous value. So physicists are completely perplexed not only to explain the number but to think what an explanation would even look like because somehow at the beginning of the universe things would have to look forward and reach out over all the things that are going to happen to take into account these resettings of the value. So this is often advertised as the cosmological constant problem because that's the name given for the symbol denoting this energy. It was introduced by Einstein himself back in 1915, although he quickly abandoned it and said...

Robyn Williams: His greatest mistake, yes.

John Barrow: His greatest mistake has turned out to be the key to the universe. So I think in the years ahead this will be a focus of attention and your listeners are going to hear a lot more about it, both from astronomers trying to find other ways to persuade you that it's really there and particle physicists and cosmologists trying to find possible other physical reasons or explanations for it. But it's a big mystery. It's as though the universe has begun inflating again, like we believe that it did in the first instance of its life, but in a completely new and inexplicable way.

Robyn Williams: John Barrow is Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge and winner of the Templeton Prize. But what of Einstein, who was always talking about God; God not playing dice and other famous references. Richard Dawkins shows that Einstein did not believe in God at all.

Einstein quote: It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Robyn Williams: Einstein as quoted in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. And here he is again.

Einstein quote: I am a deeply religious non-believer. This is a somewhat new kind of religion. I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism. The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve.

Robyn Williams: Einstein on belief. And Richard Dawkins, almost outrageously as you'll hear, says many clerics have also lost their faith but pretend otherwise. So what about a moral code? If it doesn't come from God, where does it come from?

Richard Dawkins: If the rulebook is what you find in the Old Testament or the Koran it's a horrible rulebook which I think most of us probably don't obey nor would wish to nor would expect other people to. It's true of course that you can find verses in the Bible and the Koran which do say the kinds of things that nowadays we would think of as good buried in a whole lot of things that we would say are bad. There must be some criterion for choosing which verses of the Bible we do accept (like the Sermon on the Mount, for example) and segregating them off from the ones that we no longer do, which are most of the Old Testament. If you're going to accept that nowadays we don't believe most of the Old Testament anymore, then you've got to answer the question; by what criteria do we decide which bits we don't believe? Whatever that criterion is, it's available to all of us whether we have a holy book or not. You might as well bypass the middleman, bypass the holy book and go straight for that criterion, whatever it is.

I find it very striking that there does seem to be a steadily shifting moral zeitgeist which goes on all the time. If you look at the moral attitudes today they are already different from what they were 50 years ago and then 100 years ago et cetera. By the decade our moral standards seem to change in a purely secular way, and it's something to do with there's a kind of secular consensus of conversations in pubs and dinner parties and laws passed in parliaments, decisions by courts implementing laws passed by parliament, newspaper articles, broadcasts, whatever it is, it sees to it that the zeitgeist moves in parallel in...not all parts of the world but in many parts of the world such that you can immediately recognise something that was written, say, in the first half of the 20th century and you can tell by certain little giveaways, of things like racial prejudice and things like that which you couldn't get away with today. So there is something that is shifting over the decades and it has shifted a hell of a lot more since the time when the Old Testament was written. Whatever it is it does not come from scripture. In a way I could say the onus is not on me to say where it does come from, although it does intrigue me, but all I need to show is that it certainly doesn't come from any holy book.

Robyn Williams: Things seem to be getting better in that regard and you emphasise the fact that an awful lot of this is so recent. For instance, a startling example; votes for women starting in New Zealand, second was Australia. And only incredibly recently did it happen in Switzerland, I think 1971. So something that we regard as an everyday automatic good has only been around for a couple of generations.

Richard Dawkins: One can also look at some of the things that Hitler said which of course horrify us and rightly so, but about 50 years earlier than Hitler all sorts of people were saying the same thing in Britain and in America, no doubt in Australia too, so things just move on incredibly rapidly. If you look at T.H. Huxley in the 19th century, in his own time T.H. Huxley was right in the vanguard of progressive, liberal, advanced thought. Now he sounds way, way behind. It sounds sort of shocking.

Robyn Williams: Being rude about women and blacks, in fact. As Darwin said in some of his writings, he was suggesting that black people, Negroes or whatever he called them, and women would not be able to attain intellectually the same level as men.

Richard Dawkins: And Huxley said the same thing and that just is an illustration of how things change. They do change incredibly fast and thank goodness they do, but it's just an illustration that we don't need religion in order to make that kind of change, it has nothing to do with it.

Robyn Williams: A few personal questions to finish, particularly about your film, the two-part series Root of All Evil. When you went to talk to the mullahs and the priests and such like, I think you did so in a very donnish and open way, but they more or less told you to sod off, didn't they, many of them? They said, 'Piss off, you're wrong.'

Richard Dawkins: Yes, which is only to be expected. I was criticised by various reviewers for going to talk to extremists rather than sensible bishops. I did talk to one bishop who was delightful. But I think the defence of that is least in America and I think to some extent perhaps in Australia too, these extreme fundamentalists, we think of them as extreme but actually they're not that extreme, they're kind of mainstream. And so certainly in America and also to some extent in Australia, there are people who actually think the world began less than 10,000 years ago. The scale of that error is such that it's equivalent...if you actually work out and do the sums on the true figure which is about 4.5 billion years, it's equivalent to believing that the distance from, say, Sydney to Perth is 500 yards, it's that kind of scale of error that we're talking about. And yet a large number of churchmen will be found in Australia who actually believe something as wrong as that, namely that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. These are extremists by some standards but by the standards of churchmen today they're not extreme, they're mainstream.

Robyn Williams: How do you get on with churchmen who feel differently? Do you count some of them as amongst your friends?

Richard Dawkins: Yes, some of my best friends. The Bishop of Oxford himself, Richard Harris, of whom I interviewed, he's a very good friend, a very delightful man. I suspect there are quite a number of clergymen who don't actually believe in God but who are kind of stuck with their career and in some cases it's quite a nice career.

Robyn Williams: But some of them, it seems, have to give it away. Dan Barker was one. The contradictions were just too great.

Richard Dawkins: He went through about a year when he didn't dare admit to anybody that he'd become an atheist, and that required him, since he was a clergyman, to go on practicing as a clergyman. So he went on preaching sermons and leading services and even writing hymns, he's a musician who actually wrote hymns. And he went on until finally he sort of cracked and couldn't go on anymore and announced he was an atheist and left. But for every one who dares to do that, my guess and his is that there are much more who are still practicing as clergymen and who haven't dared to admit it. Dan Barker himself, since he wrote his book, has been contacted by a large number of clergymen who in strict confidence have told him that they no longer believe in God, but they're still carrying on with their career. It's quite a fascinating thought that there are all these clergymen around who, as it were, have seen the light and yet haven't dared admit it.

Robyn Williams: You did say in the beginning of the book that you hope that any reader who believes in God, by the time he or she has finished it, they won't any more. Isn't that being a bit provocative?

Richard Dawkins: It's presumptuous. It's placing far more faith in the quality of my writing than it probably deserves but that would be...there's no harm in aiming high. It is designed to persuade, not by rhetorical tricks but by actually presenting evidence and, I hope, reasoned argument.

Robyn Williams: You're not being evangelical in that regard?

Richard Dawkins: I think that's the wrong way to put it because evangelicals usually have some kind of a holy book that they're trying to plug, and I'm actually asking people to open their eyes to the evidence and think critically, and I think if you do open your eyes to the evidence and you do think critically then you will come to your own conclusion and become an atheist.

Robyn Williams: But many people have said, 'I know the evidence but for me it's a matter of faith and that's all there is to it.'

Richard Dawkins: Often they don't know the evidence, as a matter of fact, but there are some who do know the evidence and they still say it's a matter of faith. I think that's just intellectually dishonest. To actually say, 'The evidence...' I even quote one man called Kurt Wise who says, almost in these words, 'If all the evidence in the universe was against...' he happened to be a creationist, '...was against creationism, I would be the first to admit it but I would still be a creationist because that's what the scripture...' Evidence is trumped by faith, and I think that's a betrayal of everything that it means to be human.

Robyn Williams: My final question; plenty of people have said of course Richard Dawkins is an atheist but he believes in another faith, another religion and it's called the scientific one. What is your answer to them?

Richard Dawkins: It's really the same answer. I am passionate, very passionate about some things, but the reason I'm passionate, for example, about why I think evolution is true, is because I've looked at the evidence and I believe that if anybody else looks at the evidence clearly and honestly and picks it apart and looks at it all they will come to the same conclusion. And I'm passionate because I think it's tragic that there are people who won't do that because their faith forbids them to. So I am passionate and that may sound evangelical, but it's not a rival religion because it's not based upon authority, it's not based upon revelation, it's not based upon tradition, it's based upon evidence, and nothing in religion is based upon evidence. That is based upon revelation, faith, tradition, authority et cetera. So it's very, very different from religion in that respect, although it can be equally passionate. The book is dedicated to the late Douglas Adams and I quote a very delightful interview where he was asked why he was an atheist, and I'm delighted to say that it was because of reading The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. So I said, well, even if Douglas is my only convert, I hope he is the first of many.

Robyn Williams: Richard Dawkins. And here is that Douglas Adams quote.

Douglas Adams quote: Religion has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What this means is, 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? Because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like. Everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says, 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'I respect that.'

Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the universe began, about who created the universe, no, that's holy. We are used to not challenging religious ideas, but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it. Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be.

Robyn Williams: Douglas Adams as quoted in The God Delusion, the new book by Richard Dawkins out this week. As is another book about all this by another Templeton Prize winner, this time Paul Davies. Here he is tackling one of the biggest problems of all; where the scientific laws come from.

Paul Davies: The standard picture about the laws of physics is that they somehow exist independently of the universe, that when the Big Bang went bang, these laws were imposed on the universe from without. Most physicists think of the laws as perfect mathematical forms. This is an idea that goes back to Plato. Plato had the notion of mathematics as being in some realm that transcends the physical universe, some sort of Platonic heaven of perfect mathematical forms, and physicists have inherited this platonic ideal that the laws of physics which are mathematical relationships are infinitely precise, perfectly idealised mathematical forms that somehow transcend the actual physical universe, and as far as where they come from, nobody knows.

The starting point of doing physics is to simply accept the existence of a set of these perfect mathematical statements as given and get on with the job. I've always found that very unsatisfactory. It seems to me that we can ask the question; where do the laws of physics come from, and why do they have the form that they do? And in particular, why do these laws of physics have just the right form to permit the emergence of life and thinking beings like ourselves who can wonder about the origin of things. If you look at the laws of physics and imagine playing God and changing those laws, even by a little bit, it's pretty clear that there could be no life and no observers. So we live in a universe which has these wonderful mathematical laws that can not only bring the universe into being and organise it according to the complexity we see around us but permit the emergence of living, thinking beings who can reflect on the significance of it all.

In recent years I've been trying to get away from that idea to a different view of the nature of physical law where we think of the laws as more like software, more like a program being run on the great cosmic machine and we can think of the universe as like a computer, like the hardware, and the laws of physics as like the software. That leads to a very different view of the relationship between observers and the underlying laws that give rise to them. The reason that you get a different view is because these laws, rather than being perfect mathematical forms, are limited by the finite resources of the universe. The universe is big but it's finite, and in the past that size of the universe was much smaller. Just after the Big Bang, in the first split seconds, the universe was in effect very tiny, and if we think of it as a computer, as an information processing system, then the amount of information that could have been processed in the first split second was actually rather limited.

So if you take the view of physical laws that they are information processing taking place on the great cosmic computer, then there's going to be an inherent uncertainty or ambiguity or fuzziness in those laws. So instead of thinking of the universe emerging, bang, just like that, complete with an intact set of laws, perfect, infinitely precise, idealised mathematical forms, instead I have this idea of the universe emerging from what John Wheeler called higgledy-piggledy in which, from the fuzzy maelstrom of the Big Bang, not only does the universe congeal but its laws congeal alongside it. It all happened very quickly by human standards but nevertheless it was a continuous process.

Once you have that notion that these laws are somehow inherent in the universe and not imposed on it from outside, you get away from all these tired old arguments about is there a God who made the laws? Or do the laws magically exist on their own as free floating entities? This argument that's been going back and forth for decades between people who want some sort of creator God and other people who don't like a creator God, I think it's all irrelevant. I think both those ideas are cop-outs and they're both rather infantile. I much prefer the notion that the universe and its own laws are co-explanatory, that we don't look outside of the universe for an explanation. So, on the one hand we have people who want to look outside the universe to a creator God who just has to be accepted as given, as unexplained, or scientists who would prefer to look outside the universe to a set of unexplained laws. Both of these points of view have flaws and I think they both originate from ancient modes of thought which have come about simply because of the way the human brain and the human mind has evolved.

Pauline Newman: How long have you felt that that's the way to look at things?

Paul Davies: I did a u-turn on this in the last two or three years, although I've always been sympathetic to the idea that there's a link deep down between the notion of what we would now call information and physical law. The reason is that when you write down these laws, if you go to a textbook and look at what people mean when they say the laws of physics, these are mathematical relationships. But mathematics is only a way of encoding information, and when we look at a system like, say, the solar system, the planets going around the Sun, in a very real sense this is an information processing system. Where the planets go around the Sun, they have a position one day, a different position the next day, and what they're doing is taking input information and turning it into output information. So information is something which is in at the most basic level of physical law but it's also something that comes out in intellectual activity.

Information theory, as we call it, grew out of communication theory which was really just a branch of human discourse, it's a way of mathematising the flow of information between human beings. So we have a very curious link between the human mind and human discourse on the one hand with information, and physical law on the other hand. And so I've always been curious about that link as a connection somehow between the existence of observers in the universe processing information and the underlying laws of physics processing information. And I think there is such a link but you can only have that link if the laws of physics are somehow in the universe and not imposed on it by some god or some magical principle from the outside.

Pauline Newman: How is this idea going down with your colleagues?

Paul Davies: For a while I'd been sort of commuting back and forth between my colleagues who work in fundamental physics trying to compose a theory of everything or understand the quantum nature of gravity and these people are strong Platonists, and on the other hand people working on quantum computation, and these people have much more the image that the laws of physics are informational statements, that the universe is a gigantic computer, that's the way they see it. And so I think that among the group of people who really see the universe in terms of information, that their metaphor is that nature is an information processing system, those people probably would agree with what I'm saying about the nature of physical law. I think what I've done is to set out the basis for a research program that can be carried forward into the next century.

Pauline Newman: So, a research program? Are these ideas really testable?

Paul Davies: Yes, surprisingly enough these ideas, which sound as though they are on the borderline between physics and philosophy, really are testable. If it is the case that the laws of physics are not God-given or imposed on the universe from outside in a perfect way at the Big Bang, then we may well find that there are features of the early universe which have left traces in the universe today which reflect this sort of looseness or sloppiness or fuzziness of the laws in the very early stages. But there's one other way in which I think the ideas might be testable and that is if it is the case that the universe is a gigantic computer with finite resources, we might wonder if we could ever exhaust those resources, and it turns out that it is surprisingly easy to do so.

If you take a system of only 400 particles, and it could be, say, 400 electrons, you can put those into a quantum state called an entangled state, which can be described by a certain string of numbers, and it turns out that you need so many numbers to describe that state that it would exhaust the capacity of the entire universe to store it. In other words, there's more information in that state than can be contained in the entire universe. So I suspect that if we built a state with 400 entangled particles we would then begin to expose the limitations of the so-called Platonic nature of physical law. In other words, something funny would start to happen with 400 entangled particles. Achieving an entangled state of 400 particles is not easy, but it's not obviously hopeless and the quantum computing industry has set its target at several thousand. They're up to about 12 at the moment but they're very optimistic that within our lifetime they will achieve at least this 400. I think that we may well see, within perhaps a decade or two, a test of some of these ideas.

Robyn Williams: Paul Davies with Pauline Newman in Arizona. His brand new book is called The Goldilocks Enigma: Why the Universe is Just Right for Life, and he seems to have taken the argument to a whole new dimension and left God behind once more in the process.

Readings today by Nick Franklin and Brigitte Seega. The Science Show is produced by David Fisher. I'm Robyn Williams.


Richard Dawkins
Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science
Oxford University
John Barrow
Professor of Mathematical Sciences
Centre for Mathematical Sciences
Cambridge University
Paul Davies
Arizona State University


The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins
Houghton Mifflin
The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?
Paul Davies


Robyn Williams
David Fisher