Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dawkins's Major Argument Agaisnt The Existence of God


Several atheist scientific types make the claim that science disproves God. Here I’ll look at three of the major writers who make such claims: Dawkins, Stenger, and Krauss. In dealing with this topic the first thing to keep in mind is that all three illustrate the use of reductionism and its ideological assumptions in their work. In fact their arguments are only possible given their reductionist assumptions because they are only dealing with a concept of God that reduced God to the level of a great biological organism in the sky. Of course they have to do this because if they did not they would have no business even thinking about God. They must assume God posses the qualities of such an organism for him to even be amiable to their domain. Science has no business discussing God since God is the basis of reality and not a thing in creation. God is not given in sense data, thus can’t be subject to scientific proof or disproof. In fact the arguments I will examine here really amount to a bait and switch. They claim to disprove something that can’t be dealt with as part of their domain. In trying to drag God down to the level of the scientific domain they are merely creating a straw man, or “straw God” argument.

Richard Dawkins made one of his major media splashes and scored a big hit for the cause by publishing The God Delusion.(1) The lynch pin of the book is the argument against the existence of God, which turns upon reversing the design argument. The role of science in this argument is really a deception because they actually have no data that demonstrates the lack of God. All he really does is present evidence for a materialist explanation (featuring evolution) then assumes that evolution rules out God by making him unnecessary. This is not actually a disproof and it depends upon Dawkin’s notion of “necessary.” What he means by God is not necessary for his purposes.

This assertion about God is shrouded in the mystique of science as the only knowledge. It becomes encoded in the fortress of facts mentality and then is looked upon as “official scientific proof,” by the faithful. Dawkins never actually says what concepts of God he’s dealing with, yet the only one he ever does deal with is a crass version of “Bible god’ that is sort of chick comic books special “big man in the sky.”(2) We have a major Hint in that he doesn’t deal with any other concept.

To be fair Dawkins does deal with poly theism. That creates the illusion that he’s dealing with other models of God, but he’s not because the polytheism with which he deals is based upon separate versions of the one comic book noting, the big man in the sky. Instead of one sky father we have several. It’s the same thing. From pages 29 to 37 the entire section designated “polytheism” he avoids mentioning anything about polytheistic views after the first program.(3) From 37 to 46 all he does is talk about what he doesn’t like about the God of the bible.(4) In fact he admits that he means to deal mostly with Christianity and tires to actually remove other religions such as Hinduism form the category of religions!

I shall have Christianity mostly in mind, but only because it is the version with which I happen to be most familiar. For my purposes the differences matter less than the similarities. And I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as {38} religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.(5)

I’m sure the followers of Hinduism would be shocked to learn they don’t believe in God. This is clearly a bait and switch. He’s replacing legitimate theological and philosophical concepts with a straw god argument that’s easy to beat. He knows he can’t disprove any actual theological notions so he has to reduce God belief to the big man in the sky so he can make it subject to his dictates as a purveyor of scientifically based ideology. That way he doesn’t have to take on the great thinkers of Christian theology. He can dismiss Aquinas and Whitehead and so on the basis that “these are just those liberal guys that one listens to.” In effect he’s making his own atheist straw man (straw God) argument. Straw man is when you make an argument that is a mock version of what your opponent says it is tailored to your own level of refutation so you can beat it easily, then you claim you beat the opponent’s argument. So the major and most sophisticated God concepts, the one’s that bring belief into the modern era, he just ignores. He makes a thing of beating up on pre scientific concepts of the big sky father which is an anthropomorphism that no educated theist in the modern world worries about. He doesn’t actually disprove it. He has no smoking gun, no God DNA to disprove, no black God finder box that shows there’s no God. All he really has is an argument that the antiquated sky father doesn’t fit with evolution. To him this is “disproof” of God.

The lynch pin of his argument is found in a chapter entitled “why there almost certainly is no God.”(6) As we have seen it really has nothing do with most concepts of God that educated thinkers in the modern world care about. It really should be called “why there almost certainly is no old man in the sky.” His arguments basically amounts to reversing the design argument by reducing God to the level of biological organism and then applying concepts of biology and probability to make it seem God would be more complex and that’s less probable.(7) He calls this argument the “ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.” (8) It’s based upon reversing the idea used to defend the conventional design argument that evolution is like expecting a 747 to assemble form hurricane in a junk yard.
It was actually atheist Scientist Fred Holye who made this analogy. Dawkins takes this to be the creationists favorite argument.

Some observed phenomenon — often a living creature or one of its more complex organs, but it could be anything from a molecule up to the universe itself — is correctly extolled as statistically improbable. Sometimes the language of information theory is used: the Darwinian is challenged to explain the source of all the information {114} in living matter, in the technical sense of information content as a measure of improbability or ‘surprise value’. Or the argument may invoke the economist's hackneyed motto: there's no such thing as a free lunch — and Darwinism is accused of trying to get something for nothing. In fact, as I shall show in this chapter, Darwinian natural selection is the only known solution to the otherwise unanswerable riddle of where the information comes from. It turns out to be the God Hypothesis that tries to get something for nothing. God tries to have his free lunch and be it too. However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.(9)

The crux of the issue is this, most people think that coming about random chance is chance in the absence of design and that makes it less probable that it could happen (like the chances of junk blowing around to form 747. The fact is, according to Dawkins, Darwin’s concept of natural selection actually explains the changes better and provides the mechanism that replaces the need for a designer. Dawkins argues that before Darwin thinkers such as Hume understood that design is not eh only alternative to chance, they had no mechanism for the alternative and that’s what Darwin offered them, graded transitions through natural selection. That is it. No secret mathematical formula, no astronomical observations, no data form the dreaded black box, no peering into the microscope to see a label saying “nature by chance.” The whole argument is just that we don’t need big man in sky to explain word because we have random change, and that is made more rational and covers for seeming design features by natural selection.

Dawkins spends a lot of time dealing with the issue of complexity. Complexity is not only important in terms of design vs chance (the more complex the less chance of coming about randomly) the irreducible complexity concept seems to be one of the major things the ID people have going for them. The irreducible complexity is all or nothing. An eye badly formed wouldn’t make it. How could such a complex mechanism just spring up one day? It only works in its entirety so a gradual slow progression makes no evolution. They would not pass on the trait for a half formed eye because it’s not enabling survival. Dawkins answers this by discussion of Darwin’s concept of “decent with modifications.”(10) Dawkins points out that creationists love to site Darwins passage about the problems of the eye. The joke is on them since he was only using this as a rhetorical device to draw them in and “lower the boom” so to speak. His answer is basically that the assumption of all or nothing is fallacy. There is value to half an eye or half a wing. For example cataract patients may not be ale to see well but they could see well enough not to walk off the cliff. Half a wing will not enable the bird to fly south for the winter but it might lessen the fall from the nest.(11) He spends most of the chapter beating the ID movements dead horses and gloating about how much smarter he is than religious people. ”One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” (12) This is coming form the guy who says “we don’t’ need to read theology because we know it’s stupid.” For the record, I am not an ID guy or a creations, I'm a Darwinian and what has been said in this paragraph is why. How that effects his theory of "religion breeds ignorance," the reader can decide.

He’s so carried away with admiration for his superiority he can’t resist going after Dietrich Bonhoeffer (major theologian of 20th century) as an example of one who teaches us to be content with no understanding and who worships the gaps. He asserts that Bonhoeffer loved the gaps but laments their closing.” What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.” (13) Unfortunately, despite his great superiority Dawkins just doesn’t read far enough in Bonhoeffer to see that what he’s really saying is that this is an warning to Christians not to make God of the gaps arguments. He’s merely telling them what any good logician would tell them, if you base your view of God on the gaps, they are likely to be filled. That means we should base our knowledge of God upon what can be deduced logically rather than upon gaps in science. Which is exactly what Dawkins would support were it not advice about making good God arguments. So the uber mensch just forgets to follow his own advice and not be content to not understand. Had he known this he might have read more Bonhoeffer. Uber Menschen are like that. While we are on the subject of Bonehoeffer there’s no reason to think that he is a favorite of creationist or that he was one himself. The existence of God was a done deal for Bonehoeffer. Like most liberals he didn’t care much about arguments on that score because he didn’t have any trouble believing and he didn’t see belief as necessitated upon proving something.

From pages 125 to 143 Dawkins is trashing creationists. He gives it to Behe and others. Its’ not until 142 or so in the chapter entitled, “The Anthropic Principle Cosmological Version,” that he settles down to business and makes the 747 argument in full. I skip over the content of this merely because it’s important to my views. I am not a creationist, I have no problem with Dawrin per se, I’ve already indicated the major thrust of my position that he’s just running a straw God argument; he can disprove all old men in the sky he cares to that doesn’t effect the Christian God. Dawkins discusses the anthropic fine turning argument. Of course he asserts that there is a multiverse and we just happen to live in one of the space/times that worked out for life. Because there are a whole bunch of choices, maybe infinitely, there are opportunities for the problems and dead end universe to be played out but we just happen to get in the one of the ones that works. The problem with this is it’s just another version of assuming the reason to believe in God is about explaining things. We don’t need God as an explanation so there must not be a God. That’s not proof of anything accept that maybe there’s another reason to believe besides explaining the physical universe.

At this point (146-147) he introduces the concept of probability based upon complexity. That’s really curx of the whole argument. His whole book really rests on this point. This in itself is the reason he says “there almost certainly Is not God.

It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God. Aren't they both equally unparsimonious ad hoc hypotheses, and equally unsatisfactory? People who think that have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection. The key difference between the genuinely {147} extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in us fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence. (14)

Of course we must observe once again, he’s dealing with the big man in the sky. He sees God as thinking. Why would God need to think? He sees God as “an agent” who is calculating. God knows all, why would he need to ratiocinate? God could be considered an agent in some senses but why in the sense of pondering and considering? Dawkins needs him to do this so his argument can work. The argument being that God has to be more complex than the universe in order to create it. If he’s more complex then he’s more improbable. There are several things wrong with this idea.

I have already dismissed all such suggestions as raising bigger problems than they solve. But what attempts have theists made to reply? How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?(15)

He takes on Richard Swinburne and his attempt at answering the problem. Swinburne essentially sees the world of atomic and subatomic particles as chaotic and complex and brings God in as a stabilizing force because God is simple compared the structure of this tiny world. Dawkins sees this as absurd. Form him the world of atomic and subatomic forces is beautifully simple. It’s just one idea that no matter the fact that there are many of the same kind of tiny thing. That is simple. “But how can Swinburne possibly maintain that this hypothesis of God simultaneously keeping a gazillion fingers on wayward electrons is a simple hypothesis?”(16) Swinburne is arguing that God is only a single substance (no parts) Dawkins sees this as a trick. He argues hat Swinburne is asserting this “without justification.” Of course that’s mere ignorance. There is a long tradition in thinking that spirit is one substance not made up of parts or of tiny particles. In trying to carry off this argument Dawkins really tips his hand. He quotes the following passage from Swinburne:

Theism claims that every other object which exists is caused to exist and kept in existence by just one substance, God. And it claims that every property which every substance has is due to God causing or permitting it to exist. It is a hallmark of a simple explanation to postulate few causes. There could in this respect be no simpler explanation than one which postulated only one cause. Theism is simpler than polytheism. And theism postulates for its one cause, a person [with] infinite power (God can do anything logically possible), infinite knowledge (God knows everything logically possible to know), and infinite freedom.(17)

This quotation gives the idea that God is simple as an explanation not as a “force” or “entity.” Theism posits one cause to which all phenomena can be taken back, causes everything. Now Dawkins is going to trade on the distinction between the simplicity of explanation and simplicity, for want of a better term, “nature.” He observes that Swinburne says God can’t do logically impossible things. Dawkins finds nothing more to interject in response to this point than incredulity. God’s power, aside form logically necessity/impossibly is endless and Dawkins to resents it. AT this point he evokes the concept of God’s complexity of nature than answer the idea above about simplicity as exploitation. So he’s actually talking at cross purposes. He says a God who could keep up with the individual status of every particle would have to be immensely complex. That is in terms of his own nature not the place occupies logically an expiation which is not in the sense above. They talk at cross purposes. Swinburne says God is simple as an explanation, Dawkins says God is complex as an "entity."

Dawkins also bring in Keith Ward, Dividity professor at Oxford. Again the same thing. Ward is talking about God as hypothesis being elegant:

As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the {150} existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself. It is elegant because from one key idea — the idea of the most perfect possible being — the whole nature of God and the existence of the universe can be intelligibly explicated.(18)

Yet Dawkins is talking about how complex God would be as an “entity” as though he has to have lots of parts. Dawkins seems to know something is wrong by tries to cover by making out as though it’s Ward’s fault: “Like Swinburne, Ward mistakes what it means to explain something, and he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple. I am not clear whether Ward really thinks God is simple, or whether the above passage represented a temporary ‘for the sake of argument’ exercise..” He’s saying Ward doesn’t know what simple means when in fact he doesn’t get that he’s making a parsimony claim. He’s saying all the different problems aspects of origin are summed up in this one answer, the use of the term “elegant” is a dead giveaway that it’s parsimony. By the same Token Swinburne is making the same sort of patrimony claim. Dawkins’s answer doesn’t even apply to make it seem that it’s their fault something is wrong, he as makes as they don’t get his argument right when in fact they wrote first he’s bring them to make a straw man argument. Like most straw man arguments he has to stretch to get it to fit.

Dawkins entire argument turns upon the reduction of God from the level of ground of being or something beyond or understanding, some basis of reality, that of a giant biological organism. Dawkins straw God doesn’t know, he has to monitor and keep track, he has to be complex enough to keep track of all the sub atomic particles and so on. As the ground of being God would be intimately connected to everything, Dawkins’s straw God would have to keep watch on each and ever particle. Dawkins actually does make this point (see fn on his answer to Ward). Since God is not a big man in the sky or a big biological organism what would be the consequences of his being complex? The reason complexity comes into it is because Dawkins wants that to be the guide to probability. Now to measure the probably of something it must be quantifiable and it must be observable. Thus to even consider God as a subject of the concept of probability he has to be observable. So that sort of skews the whole business right there. Moreover, how can one fix a “probability” for the basis of reality? That’s like trying to time a speedometer with the speedometer itself. Or trying to weigh a scale with the scale being weighed. The whole issue is, like the consciousness issue, more reductionism bait and switch.

If God was complex I don’t see how it could be reasoned as less probable by the standards of ordinary probably nor would it be a problem for God. Surely an infinite God could handle the demands of complexity since it would not be the sort of complexity we know in the physical world. God is not made up of parts. It’s not as though God is a Rube Goldberg machine. God’s complexity would surely be of a totally different ilk than anything of which we know. What would it mean to say God is complex? If God is not made of atoms and has no moving parts, not produced by a brain then what exactly is complex? If it’s his understanding that’s complex I don’t see how that would render him less probable since it’s the complexity of parts that determines probability. The basis of knowledge would not be proportional to any biological brain chemistry or anything of that nature in thinking of God. The whole argument is just a trick of reductionism. It’s a straw God argument that might work on the comic book God of fundamentalism who is a big man in the sky but it doesn’t work on more sophisticated concepts such as process theology or Tillich’s notion of God as being itself. If we think of God as a universal mind, the super-essential Godhead of Dionysus the Areiopagite, the whole concept of complexity as we understand it in relation to the physical is just a passing fancy I mind we can’t understand.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Boston, New York: The Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. All quotes from this source will be from online copy of the text URL: all page numbers apply to free ebook.
find chick
(1) Dawkins, ibid, 29-37.
(2) Ibid, 37-46
(3) ibid, 37
(4) ibid, 113
(5) ibid
(6) ibid.
(7) ibid. 114
(8) ibid. 115-122
(9) ibid. 123-124.
(10) ibid 125 “the worship of gaps”
(11) ibid.
(12) ibid, 146-147
(13) ibid 147
(14) ibid
(15) Swinburne quoted by Dawkins, ibid 148-149
(16) Ward, quoted by Dawkins ibid 149-150
(17) ibid 150
(18) Ward quoted by Dawkins 149


Rudy said...


I'm sorry I've been out of touch, my son just got back from Japan. I've got your printed out book with me and I'll get to it as soon as we get settled.

I am pretty much with you, or Ward I guess, on the parsimony issue.

I had an internet argument a few months back that I would like your opinion about; I argued that it would be impossible for an outside observer to "scientifically" detect the existence of a book; specifically I think it was Pride and Prejudice. Not a copy of the book, but the novel itself.

At the time, I was silenced by my interlocuter (is that the right word?) saying that someone (a space alien I guess!) could detect the behavior the book caused. I've thought about it a lot, and think that this is wrong now; to "understand" the behavior caused by the novel (and thus "detect" the novel) one would already have to be in a Heideggerian life world where that behavior would make sense. In other words, if you could "detect" P and P behavior, you would already be able to read the book and "know" its existence in the non-scientific way we all know it.

This probably can be turned into an argument against scientism in general, and it is probably not at all original though I haven't seen any discuss a thought experiment like this.
- (can't use email at the moment...)

Metacrock said...

Hey Rudy good to hear from you. I'm not quite sure I understand what it would mean to "detect the novel itself." The elaboration you give reminds me of the problem dealt with my the M scale the study of mystical experience. When researchers say they produced religious experiences by stimulating parts of the brain, what are they calling a religious experience? How do do they know what one is to begin with unless they already have a theory and some data about the nature of religion and its' effects upon people.

That's why the M scale was needed, to estabish a control for "mystical experience."It did that by validating W.T. Staces's theory. It has been corroborated pretty nicely (even though the brain searchers don' use it). It can determine if one had a Stace-like experience. But it also assumes Stace's style of experience is the only kind of mystical experience.

I don't mean to say that it's inventor Ralph Hood believes that Stace has the lock on mystical experience but in terms of what can be validated.

The idea that we can detect the effects of a novel though behavior is silly in my view. the variables are too complex in society to isolate the effects of one book.

Rudy said...

I think that the question is whether the novel would be detectable, even in theory. So while the behavior variables might be too complicated, other complex phenomena like, say, illness, are usually considered scientific phenomena even though they have a pretty complicated culture context.

But yes, the novel is the same as religious experience; the brain scientist already shares the same tacit, background assumptions about what a religious experience "should" look like.

I will look for the M scale, that sounds really interesting. But William James only scratched the surface, as he knew, and Varieties already had a more complex view of religion than brain science!

Metacrock said...

Exactly! Ralph Hood, inventor of the M scale is a huge fan of William James. He argues James' opponents were just the same as modern chemical reductionists. Many of James' answers still work today.

This is in the territory of my first book. We are busting guts to get it out by Christmas.