AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 2

Welcome to part two in a five-part series rexamining The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In part one, I introduced the series and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In this part Dawkins responds to common arguments for the existence of a god and contrasts them with his own argument, that an agent capable of acting as a god would be supremely complex and unlikely.

Chapter 3. Arguments for God’s existence

In Chapter three Dawkins considers the main theoretical arguments for the existence of a theistic, or more generic, god. I get a feeling that Dawkins is rushing through this chapter, and betraying his lack of interest in philosophical arguments, in an effort to quickly get back onto his preferred ground of scientific empiricism.

The easy criticism of this chapter is that Dawkins picks the simplistic arguments and gives them only superficial consideration. The easy defence follows that (1) he is writing an introductory book for a broad popular audience, not an academic work of counter apologetics, and (2) that the sophisticated versions of these arguments are no less vacuous.

When an atheist exposes the logical fallacy at the heart of one theologian’s simplistic argument, there will always be another more ‘sophisticated’ theologian along to make the argument more complex in an effort to better hide the same fallacy, and this goes on and on forever. Why then should an atheist not be allowed to save themselves some time and just address the simplistic version of the argument? If the theologian feels this unfair, they should stop trying to make their bad arguments ‘sophisticated’ and try finding a good argument. In any case I normally find apologetics a profoundly uninteresting distraction from religious debates which have some relevance to the real world.

As might be expected, Dawkins starts with Thomas Aquinas’s five ‘proofs’. Also, as to be expected, Dawkins points out that the first three of these (the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause and the cosmological argument) are actually the same argument which “rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it”, and in each the proposed terminator of this infinite regress is only made immune from that same regress through special pleading. Dawkins further points out that there is no reason to suppose that this special terminator should be a theistic god or any other conscious agent. He does not address how modern science calls into question the soundness of some of Aquinas’s clauses, something we can’t reasonably hold against the thirteenth century monk.

Dawkins quickly points out the fundamental logical problems with concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. I’m sure that ‘sophisticated’ theologians would take him to task, pointing out how they have redefined omniscience and omnipotence in an attempt to escape these internal logical contradictions.

Aquinas’s fourth ‘proof’, the argument from degree, Dawkins dismisses with a valid reductio ad absurdum. The argument from degree is that we notice there are different degrees of various things including  goodness. and that this implies there must be some entity which represents the maximal. Dawkins ignores, or doesn’t realise, the better response to the argument from degree, which is to point out that even if we do compare various things to a theoretical maximum, there is no reason to presume that this maximum is anything more than conceptual, let alone a conscious agent.

Aquinas’s fifth ‘proof’ is the teleological argument, better known as the argument from design. Given the centrality of evolutionary thought to Dawkins’ atheism, I expected a long refutation of this. In fact, Dawkins has written several far better books addressing the apparent design in nature.

From these a posteriori arguments Dawkins moves on to consider a priori arguments, beginning with the ontological, which he credits to St Anselm of Canterbury in 1078, and phrases thusly:

“Hence, even the fool (Anselm is referring to atheists) is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.”

Again, Dawkins largely addresses this through several valid reductio ad absurdum, but drawing on Hume and Kant does go on to point out some of the more obvious flaws in the argument. Namely that: the assertion that we can conceive of an ultimate being is questionable and the inclusion of existence as an aspect of perfection is circular. I do agree with Dawkins, that it would be bizarre for some great fact about the universe, which the existence of a god surely would be, to be revealed through word games.

Dawkins then goes on to state without bothering to refute “a hilarious half-dozen” arguments collected by the Godless Geeks website. Most ‘sophisticated’ theologians would probably agree these are silly. Though I feel compelled to point out that arguments such as “God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” or “A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. But one child survived with only third-degree burns. Therefore God exists.” are probably used by more of the faithful than Aquinas’s.

From these, Dawkins moves on to informal arguments starting with that from beauty. He points out that the existence of beautiful art, music and literature, even when inspired or financed by religion, says nothing about the existence of even a metaphorical god. He then spends a little time talking about arguments from personal experience:

“If you’ve had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.”

Both theologians and legitimate biblical scholars may wince at Dawkins’ simplistic discussion of biblical contradictions in addressing the argument from scripture. But his point that fictional and mythologised text cannot be used as evidence of the truth of their own claims, is pretty simple when you get down to it. Dawkins’ criticisms of the Bible and by extension other ‘sacred’ texts may be surface level but serve the purpose of consciousness raising. If a religious person has been raised to believe that ‘sacred’ texts are unquestionable, even inartful questioning of those texts may raise their consciousness to the possibility that they themselves could question them.

Dawkins spends five pages considering the arguments from admired religious scientists. He points out that (1) scientists were far more likely to be religious in the past when professing religious belief was the only acceptable thing to do (2) many great scientists are religious in the purely naturalistic metaphorical sense he addresses in chapter one and (3) there are clear correlations between levels of education, scientific expertise, and irreligion.

Again, I feel compelled to bring up the double-edged sword of atheist pride(fulness). Dawkins does not consider sociological reasons why better educated people and those who perform better on IQ tests may be more likely to be atheists. If you have greater access to good quality education, you are probably somewhere where it is physically and socially less dangerous to be an atheist. Not everyone has the time or resources necessary to educate oneself about or fully consider religious and naturalistic arguments. Dawkins, memorably, would go on to point out that Muslim majority countries produce significantly fewer Nobel Scientists.

Dawkins rounds out the chapter by addressing Pascal’s wager and giving brief consideration to Bayesian analysis. Dawkins summarises the French mathematician Blaise Pascal thusly:

“You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.”

Dawkins makes the usual sensible criticisms of the wager: it can be applied to any unevidenced proposition one cares to think up, it doesn’t account for how vanishingly unlikely the possibility of a god actually existing is, and it doesn’t account for the negative costs of religion. Dawkins appears to miss that Pascal’s actual argument in the wager is that one should act as though they have faith in the hopes that they will be influenced by those around them or God’s grace to develop genuine faith. If (as Pascal believed) there were good independent evidence for a god (there isn’t) then the wager might be reasonable.

Bayesian arguments are those which try to make probabilistic arguments for the existence of a god by considering generally agreed (between theists and atheists) facts about reality and then attempting to compare whether they would be more or less probable in a world where a god does or doesn’t exist. Dawkins points out that these arguments are subject to the “GIGO principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out)” as the theist simply asserts that some variable is more likely in a world where their preferred god exists. I actually find Bayesian arguments for gods to be more interesting and epistemologically humble than the other arguments considered in this chapter.

Chapter 4. Why there almost certainly is no God

This chapter contains Dawkins central argument against theism and what he considers to be the best argument against the god hypothesis he has defined in chapter two, namely that: a theistic god i.e., a conscious agent created the universe and has some interest in human affairs.

Dawkins’ strategy is to take the argument from (apparent) design or complexity, which as an evolutionary science communicator he has dedicated decades to refuting and turning it on its head. He calls this the “Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”, based on the creationist argument which misrepresents evolution as a random process of chance, where the odds of creating complex life is akin to the odds of a tornado in a junkyard assembling a Boeing 747.

Dawkins reasons that an entity such as a god with the power to create and manage the universe must be itself incredibly complex and therefore more improbable. Theologians reason that the complex appearance of design seen in nature suggests that there is a designer for the whole of nature. Dawkins understands that the complex appearance of design seen in nature is actually the result of simple natural processes, he therefore reasons that there must be simple natural processes for the whole of nature.

Dawkins believes that natural selection should serve as a consciousness-raiser to help us understand why a complex theistic god would be so unlikely. As he’s back on the topic of consciousness-raising, we are treated to another cringing jab at aspects of feminism he thinks are silly, namely “herstory”, before actually giving good examples of how feminist critique of language has helped expose hidden assumptions which may cloud our thinking.

“Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.”

Natural selection may be Dawkins’ central concern, but he points out how other fields of science should raise our consciousness to understand the absurdity of believing that the vast universe we inhabit a tiny part of was created by a conscious agent for our benefit. Dawkins, via Prof Peter Atkins, addresses the argument that a god could have worked their process of creation through processes such as natural selection, with a seemingly valid reductio ad absurdum where a lazy god allows natural processes to do all his work for him.

Dawkins spends a few pages on the creationist pseudoscience of irreducible complexity and supposed gaps in the fossil record. All of this is perfectly fine refutation of creationism and is both entertaining and informing science communication, but doesn’t add much to the point that a theistic god would have to be very complex.

Next Dawkins addresses the anthropic principle, at both planetary and cosmological scales. To sum up, theologians point to how unlikely the existence of either life on this planet or life in the universe itself is and suggest that this points to the existence of a god who sets things up this way. The anthropic principle flips this on its head. If life had not evolved on Earth, then we wouldn’t be here to be wondering why.

“The chance of finding any one of those billion life-bearing planets recalls the proverbial needle in a haystack. But we don’t have to go out of our way to find a needle because (back to the anthropic principle) any beings capable of looking must necessarily be sitting on one of those prodigiously rare needles before they even start the search.”

If I were to shuffle a deck of 52 cards before drawing out 13 spades, this would seem hugely significant to me. But it would be no less improbable than drawing any random selection of 13 cards. The existence of humans is naturally of supreme importance to humanity. But if we didn’t exist, it’s not like the universe would miss us. It is unfathomable arrogance to assume the universe was created for us, why not assume it was created for dung beetles, black holes, or interstellar dust?

Dawkins points out that some theologians like to go on and on about how unlikely the current setup of our local universe is, but that such probabilistic arguments are rendered meaningless by the anthropic principle, and by the fact that these theologians have no basis for their probabilistic claims. We don’t know how many potential universes there are or whether the conditions of our local universe really are free to vary.

For the cosmological version of the anthropic principle, Dawkins considers the religious physicist Martin Rees’s argument from six fundamental constants. Rees argues that there are six fundamental constants which must be exactly or pretty exactly their current values in order for a universe like ours to exist. A theologian would argue that a god would have to have set these values. Dawkins counters that a conscious agent capable of setting those values would have to be more complex and so it is far simpler to suppose some unconscious naturalistic explanation.

“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?”

Dawkins is aware that theologians will respond that a god is a simple and parsimonious proposition. This could be defended in several ways: (1) by positing a purely first cause god rather than the theistic god Dawkins is addressing, (2) by special pleading that god is immune from the logical inconsistency that arises in being both supremely simple and supremely complex, or (3) simple obfuscation.

First, he considers the argument by the theologian Richard Swinburne who argues, unconvincingly, that a god who through conscious effort maintains the laws of physics throughout the universe is simpler than having to suppose explanations for why every component of the universe continues to obey the laws of physics. Another theologian, Keith Ward, is quoted in the ‘god is simple camp’ as saying:

“As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the 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.”

Dawkins points out that Swinburne and Ward are positing an extremely complex agent and then, because they can describe it in simple terms, asserting that the thing itself is simple. Dawkins could have argued that this is an example of confusing the map for the territory.

Dawkins wraps up the chapter with “an interlude at Cambridge”, where he recounts the response to his argument from complexity at a Templeton Foundation conference on science and religion:

“I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology, if Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?”

Dawkins effectively returns to his critique of NOMA from chapter two. He, and I agree with him, rejects the theologians’ claim that they have some special field of knowledge which is immune from the sorts of epistemology we may apply to other empirical or philosophical questions. Dawkins believes that by framing the god question as a hypothesis which (1) actually does represent the sort of god that theists claim to believe in and (2) is demonstrably improbable, he can move it to his own ground and defeat it. But I don’t think that’s how counter apologetics works. The best the atheist can do, and Dawkins does make a valiant effort in this chapter, is simply to continue to point out absurdities in god concepts such that theologians must retreat deeper and deeper into special pleading to defend their notions.

Dawkins addresses the claim by critical theologians, that his worldview – that theological claims can be put to the question as a scientific hypotheses – is stuck in the nineteenth century. He contends that this attack actually reflects poorly on theologians and their retreat since the nineteenth century from defending their positions through real-world epistemology, to defending their beliefs from the reach of that epistemology. This, one presumes, is what passes for banter at a Templeton Foundation conference.

Finally, Dawkins concludes the chapter and then sets up the rest of the book by considering some of the questions of religion atheists should address once the idea of a theistic god has been dismissed:

“Isn’t it consoling? Doesn’t it motivate people to do good? … Why, in any case, be so hostile? … where does it come from?” etc.

Those all sound like good questions, and I hope you will join again in two weeks’ time to explore Dawkins’ responses.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

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