Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Lewis Wolpert’s Question-Begging Obscurantism

Cell biologist and atheist Lewis Wolpert (who is a vice-president of the British Humanist Association and who recently debated God's existence with William Lane Craig) admits that he ‘stopped believing in God when I was 15 or 16 because he didn’t give me what I asked for’[i]; but he contends that his continued atheism is justified because: ‘There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God.’[ii] Keith Ward had the following revealing exchange with Wolpert concerning this justification in the course of an interview for Third Way magazine:

Ward: What sort of evidence would count for you? Would it have to be scientific evidence of some sort?
Wolpert: Well, no… I think I read somewhere: If he turned the pond on Hamstead Heath into good champagne, it would be quite impressive…
Ward: A miracle would be sufficient?
Wolpert: But then you have to remember what David Hume said, that you wouldn’t believe in a reported miracle unless ‘the falsehood of [the] testimony would be more miraculous than the event which [it] relates.’
Ward: Its one of his worst arguments, in my view.
Wolpert: Hume is the only philosopher I take seriously. I’m big against philosophy…

Wolpert justifies his atheism by complaining that there is no evidence for the existence of God (a complaint that assumes evidence is required for warranted belief in God, but we can let this assumption pass for now). So what sort of evidence would Wolpert accept? Would he accept scientific evidence? On Humean grounds, he would not. Later in the same interview Ward asked Wolpert whether (in principle) there could be evidence of providence in history? Wolpert replied that there ‘absolutely [could] not’[iv] be any such evidence. Wolpert seems to include the evidence of religious experience among purported scientific evidence for God, because having provided a standard explanation of such experience in terms of evolutionary psychology (and despite admitting ‘I don’t have a good explanation, to be quite honest’[v] for why he himself has escaped the evolutionary pressure to believe), Wolpert feels that he can dismiss all such experiences as delusional (an unsurprising move for someone who is a self-confessed ‘reductionist and a materialist’[vi]). If Wolpert rules out scientific evidence for theism, will he accept philosophical evidence? He will not, because he is ‘big against philosophy’ (although he will embrace a double standard in order to allow Hume into the fold, to shore it up against scientific evidence for deity). Having excluded a priori the possibility of there being any evidence for God it is unsurprising that Wolpert can find none. What is surprising is that having excluded a priori the possibility of there being any evidence for God Wolpert should seek to justify his atheism by complaining that ‘the evidence for God is not very good from my point of view.’[vii] Wolpert’s complaint is ultimately not that there is insufficient evidence for theism, but the question begging argument that since the possibility of there being evidence for theism would require reductionistic materialism to be false, and since reductionistic materialism is true, there can’t possibly be any sound evidence for theism!

[i] Lewis Wolpert, ‘The Hard Cell’, Third Way, March 2007, p. 16.
[ii] ibid, p. 17.
[iii] ibid.
[iv] ibid.
[v] ibid, p. 18.
[vi] ibid, p. 17.
[vii] ibid, p. 16.

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