Tuesday, May 08, 2007

4: Who is this Dawkins Person Anyway?

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

....given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy of Testew and Cunard it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labours of men...

Waiting for Godot

Dawkins defines God as 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.' This is an admirably narrow definition.
If we accept it, we can't call Thor a god because he neither designed nor created the universe. Even if we extend the definition to include 'one or more superhuman, supernatural intelligences' the Norse gods don't really fit the bill. No-one ever said that Thor designed the thunder or even that he deliberately created it. It also stops us from using the word 'God' in a metaphorical sense. Whatever Einstein was thinking about when he imagined God playing dice, it wasn't a supernatural designer.
It is just about possible to come up with beings who fit Dawkins' definition, but who are not gods in any religious sense. A little man in a bowler hat who flies around space on a magic carpet, assembling planets out of flat-packs and making play-dough creatures to inhabit them would not be called God by most theists.
Dawkins himself doesn't quite manage to stick to his definition. He says that the 'problem of evil' is easily solved by postulating a second, bad god: but so far as I know no-one has ever said that Satan designed and created anything. He complains about the tendency of Catholics to drift towards polytheism: but no Pope has ever said that the Virgin Mary designed the universe.
Nevertheless, I think we should accept Dawkins' definition as far as we can. We can then state the substance of his argument in a few lines:
Let us define 'God' as 'the designer of the universe'.
The universe was not designed, but emerged through a process of natural selection.
If the universe was not designed, it had no designer.
Therefore 'God' does not exist.

Or, with a difference of emphasis:
Let us define 'God' as 'the designer of the universe.'
It is very improbable that anything very complex should exist.
'Designers' are more complex than the things they design.
The universe is very complex.
Therefore, the universe is very improbable.
The designer of the universe must be even more complex than the universe.
Therefore the designer of the universe must be even more improbable than the universe.
To say that something is 'very improbable' is the same as saying that it almost certainly doesn't exist.
Therefore 'God' almost certainly doesn't exist.

Both arguments boil down to:
If evolution occurred, 'God' does not exist.
In fact, evolution occurred.
Therefore, 'God' does not exist.

As everyone apart from Dawkins' sees, this is precisely the same argument used by the Creationists.
If evolution occurred, 'God' does not exist.
In fact, God exists.
Therefore, evolution did not occur.

The Creationists need Dawkins and Dawkins needs the Creationists: both sides mutually reinforce the faulty premises of the other's argument. They are locked in a fatal embrace and with any luck they will soon drag each other into a metaphysical Riechenbach Falls.
The chapters where Dawkins deals with this proof are much less embarrassing than the chapters about religion. He has great fun taking apart people who say that because it is incredibly unlikely that something as complicated as a human being should spontaneously assemble itself, someone must have designed it. Since this is precisely what evolutionists think didn't happen Dawkins isn't terribly impressed by Creationists on this score. He is also quite good at explaining what believers in Intelligent Design mean by 'irreducible complexity' and why they shouldn't.
It must be said that evolution by natural selection is assumed rather than explained throughout the book. I don't think that if an open-minded creationist (if you could imagine such a beast) read this book, he would learn enough to be persuaded. And even in the scientific sections, I often felt that Dawkins had not properly understood the positions he was demolishing. He spends a lot of time with a silly creationist tract that looks at giant redwoods and jellyfish and asks if they can really be the products of blind chance. (Rather charmingly, Dawkins doesn't seem to realise that the Watchtower Tract Society is synonymous with Jehovah's Witnesses.) Is the author of the tract really talking about mathematical odds? Is he really saying that the chance of a lot of molecules suddenly arranging themselves into a giant redwood is less than a billion trillion billion to one and therefore someone must have constructed the tree? I think that their real concern is with the blindness of the forces which scientists say caused the tree to exist. I think that when they look at the tree, they experience certain aesthetic and spiritual emotions and they think that those emotions are appropriate and meaningful and have something to do with the tree. I think that they think that if the tree is only the product of indifferent and impersonal forces then those emotional responses become meaningless. I think that they think that in a purely Darwinian universe, they won't even be allowed to say 'that's a pretty tree' any more. If that is what they think, then a clear explanation of how those blind, indifferent forces work is simply a non sequitur.
That said, if you accept the theory of evolution by natural selection – as everyone sensible does -- Dawkins' proof is entirely valid. I know, of course, that an annoying rump of Creationists are making a lot of noise on both sides of the Atlantic. But I think that the majority of mainstream Jews, Christians, Muslims and very probably Mormons would agree with Dawkins. 'God'–defined as 'a being who deliberately designed and created everything in the universe including us' does not exist.
I have four books of popular apologetics on my shelf. None of them makes the slightest attempt to use the Argument From Design to promote the belief in God.

  • John Young (The Case Against Christ) specifically rules out design as proof of the existence of God, suggesting that instead we look at 'personal experience and history,' by which he means evangelical Jesus-changed-my-life type testimony.

  • Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict) talks about the Bible, the figure of Jesus and poached eggs.

  • C.S Lewis (Mere Christianity) puts forward a rather involved version of the argument from morality. (In Miracles he uses a very involved argument from consciousness, but let's not go there.)

  • Roger T Forster (Saturday Night...Monday Morning) does appear at one point to be drifting into Aquinas' 'first cause' argument. 'If the universe has not always existed, then it must have had a beginning...So if there was a beginning, there must have been a beginner in some form or other.' But it turns out that all Forster wants to do is distinguish between 'naturalism' and 'supernaturalism'. Either 'the universe' is all that exists or else 'something else – call it GOD for the moment' exists as well. This matters to Forster because, if 'something else -- call it GOD for the moment' exists, then it is possible to ask teleological questions about The Universe. He doesn't think that 'call-it-GOD-for-the-moment' is necessary to explain how the Universe got into the state we found it in. He thinks that call-it-GOD-for-the-moment caused The Universe but he doesn't necessarily think that it 'deliberately designed everything in it including us.'

(Forster may, incidentally, be to blame for the following well-worn argument. Suppose you ask the question 'Why is that kettle boiling?' Someone might reply: 'Because energy is going into the water in the form of heat, causing the water to vaporise.' And they would be right. But someone else might equally well answer 'Because I want a cup of tea.' And they would be right, too. Forster's point is that you can answer the same question in two different ways, and the second answer ('I want a cup of tea') does not in any sense abolish or contradict the first. So there is no necessary conflict between Religion and Science. If you admit the existence of some reality other than the Universe, then it becomes possible to ask questions which have 'I-want-a-cup-of-tea' type answers -- but that doesn't abolish or invalidate the scientific questions. Christians sometimes use the Cup of Tea metaphor to demonstrate that 'Science asks how; religion asks why'. This is a very good phrase to use, not because it is true, nor because it is what Forster meant, but because it enrages Richard Dawkins.)
Given that vanishingly few people believe in Dawkins version of 'God', the great man has two options:

  • He could say 'I am simply uninterested in any other version of God. I have nothing to say about him, or even Him. John Humphrys can sit in a quiet room with the Archbishop of Canterbury for as long as he wishes; he will hear not one word of complaint from me. Those things whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should shut the hell up about.' This would have made the book very short.

  • He could make a serious attempt to find out what other Gods are on the market. He could find out what kinds of deity are invoked by people who fully accept everything that Dawkins has to say about Galapagos Tortoises but who nevertheless consider themselves to be Theists. This would have involved him in reading some books. Talking to some Christians. Trying to find out what non-creationist-Theists mean when they use the term 'God'. You know. Research.

Instead, he spends the book half-heartedly putting forward arguments which he doesn't understand, don't interest him and don't have any possible bearing on his case.
Here he is waffling on about the the Holy Trinity:
Arius of Alexander, in the the fourth century AD denied that Jesus was consubstantial (of the same substance or essence) with God. What could that possibly mean, you are probably asking. Substance? What substance? What exactly do you mean by essence? 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply.
Actually, it meant a great deal: a very great deal. You don't have to believe that God exists to see that a story in which God takes on human form is a very different story from one in which God creates a messenger and tells that messenger to take on human form. The Passion of the Christ is a different movie depending on whether you think the person being eviscerated is God or just some guy. Athanasius thought that it was God who hung on a cross for the world; Arius thought that it was a created being who was not God. This is not very little; this is very big. Granted, the Creeds put it in terms of Aristotelian theories about 'substance' and 'essence': but there isn't much sense in complaining that technical documents are written in technical language if you are not prepared to pick up a standard work and look up what the words mean.
But Dawkins is simply not interested in Christian ideas about God -- and why should he be? If it could be shown that the Nicene Creed made perfect sense, would that bring Dawkins one inch -- or indeed one iota -- closer to a belief in 'a supernatural and superhuman person who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us?' Of course not. The Arian controversy is simplyirrelevant to the case which he is trying to make. So why bring it up in the first place?
A few pages later, he asks the following question about polytheism:
How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with such polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate God.
Again, this is easily answered. Aphrodite is a Greek God, Venus is a Roman one and the Romans took it for granted that all nations worshipped the same gods under different names. Caesar saw the Druids praying to the Sun and concluded that they were followers of Apollo. Thor and Wotan are both characters in a single cycle of stories. The Norse Gods are effectively a family of superheroes: the universe is very much a going concern when Wotan arrives on the scene. I don't think that there is ever any suggestion that one is a 'manifestation' of the other.
But the New College Professor of Public Understanding of Science has an even better answer.
Who cares? Life is too short to worry about the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many.
To which one is tempted to say: 'Well, you started it.'
He goes on:
Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect I shall say no more about it.
That pretty much sums up the book: gesturing towards subjects about which he has nothing whatsoever to say.
Would a clear and lucid account of how Hindu Polytheism differs from Norse and Roman systems make Dawkins more inclined to believe in a supernatural intelligence who designed and created everything in the universe, including us? Of course not. So why is the Professor wasting the class's time on it?
Then we get onto proofs of the existence of God. Dawkins rehearses the story of how Bertrand Russell (as an undergraduate) decided that our friend the Ontological Proof was logically sound. Dawkins says that even if the argument was logically sound, Russell had no right to conclude that God exists. He should have just assumed that the Proof was a logical trick, on the level of Zeno's paradox. We may not yet have the logical tools to debunk it, but 'it is too good to be true that grand truths about the cosmos should follow from a mere word game.' Even if it appears to be right, it's wrong. The universe just doesn't work like that.
So no logical proof – even a perfectly sound one -- could possibly establish the existence of God, even in principle. So why waste our time on the specific fallacies of Anselm's proof? Why mention it at all?
He goes on to talk about the 'The Argument from Religious Experience', which he takes to mean 'the argument that "God" must exist because people experience supernatural events which have no other possible explanation'. He goes through several examples of supposedly supernatural events which can be easily 'explained away' – as psychological phenomena, hallucinations or simply as mundane things which the eye of faith mistakes for God. He then admits that he can't explain how 70,000 pilgrims at Fatima can all have seen the sun crash into the earth in 1917. But:
It may seem improbable that 70,000 people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. Or that history is mistaken in recording that seventy thousand people claimed to see the sun dance. Or that they all simultaneously saw a mirage... But any of these apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit...
So: when a supernatural event can be explained away, that's evidence for the non-existence of 'God'. But when a supernatural event can't be explained away, that's no evidence for the existence of 'God'. We should just assume that there is an explanation which haven't spotted yet. If God walked into Dawkins' study and tapped him on the shoulder, it wouldn't shake Dawkins faith. He'd just go and get his shoulder checked out.
And, again, Dawkins is quite right: if it were established beyond all doubt that every single vision of the Virgin Mary has been perfectly genuine this would leave the question of Dawkins' 'God' precisely where it was. The Virgin Mary may very well be a supernatural and even a superhuman person but the fact that she appears to pious children and heals cripples at Lourdes wouldn't prove that she or anyone else deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us. If we could convince Dawkins that Our Lady of Lourdes was quite real, he'd be quite free to say 'Gosh. So some people have a supernatural guardian. I never expected that. But it doesn't make me doubt the facts of evolution.'
How could it? For Dawkins the theory of evolution by natural selection has the status of a logical axiom. It is self-evidently, necessarily true. A logical proof, a well attested supernatural manifestation, a genuine miracle, a babel fish: these could no more make Dawkins doubt the existence of natural selection than the could make him believe that triangles have four sides.
Dawkins seems to be dimly aware that when people talk about 'God', they do not always mean 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.' At the beginning of chapter 2 he attempts to get his retaliation in first:
This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, on that would otherwise – as sure as night follows day – turn up in a review: 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God that I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.' That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed the distraction is worse than irrelevant. It's very silliness is designed to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.
This is pure bluster. If I say 'The search for extra-terrestrial civilisation is futile, because it's absurd to imagine grey aliens in flying saucers who abduct cattle and mutilate red-necks,' a SETTI enthusiast might say 'But that's not what we are looking for; we agree with you that those kinds of U.F.O stories are silly.' If I replied 'I knowed you'd say that because that's what peoples like you always says, but it do not matter, because the other kind of alien are just as silly so yah-boo-sucks' I wouldn't be advancing the discussion very far. Dawkins may, in fact, disbelieve in all gods; but the 'particular version' who deliberately designed and created the universe is the only particular version whose particular existence he makes the slightest particular effort to disprove.
Christians don't think that Dawkins thinks that they think that God really has a beard. 'Old man in the sky with a white beard' is a figure of speech – shorthand – which neatly encapsulates various errors which lazy atheists and naive theists sometimes make, for example:
1: They imagine that Christians think that God is a human being of some kind and therefore ask questions like 'What does he eat?' 'If he made the world, what did he stand on?' 'If he doesn't have a beard, how does he shave?' 'How did he evolve?' (Three guesses which of those questions troubles Prof. Dawkins?) Christians don't think that God is an old man. They don't even think he is a man. They probably don't even think he's made of atoms.
2: They confuse symbols with representations: they think that when Michelangelo painted God on the Pope's ceiling, he was making an informed guess about what someone would have see with their eyes if they bumped into God on the Roman metro – as opposed to using pictures to put across theological ideas.
3: They imagine that Christians think that God lives in some particular place in space and time. They may not think that we think that he lives in the sky, but I think that they think that we think that if you had a fast enough spaceship you could eventually track him down. Dawkins doesn't commit himself on the question of God's facial hair; but it is pretty clear that he thinks that God lives in the sky – or at any rate, in some place in the empirical universe.
One of Dawkins' groupies is at this moment -- as surely as night follows day -- composing a comment which runs like this. 'Of course Dawkins thinks that if there's a 'God' he lives in the empirical universe, because that's the only kind of universe which exists. "Not in the empirical universe" means the same as "Nowhere".'
To which I will respond 'That's the exact point we disagree about. Some people believe that the universe is the only thing that exists. Some people believe that there is something else apart from the universe. If you say 'the empirical universe is all that exists' you are pre-supposing your conclusions in your premises, or, to use the technical term, cheating.'
I think a lot of Dawkins' arguments do, in fact, contain this kind of 'cheating'. When he says that the 'argument from design' would create an infinite regress (if 'God' made the universe, then something even cleverer than 'God' must have made 'God', and something even cleverer than God-2 must have made God-2) I think that he is picturing God as a powerful, complex being, composed of atoms, that evolved or was created somewhere in space-and-time. A man in a bowler hat on a flying carpet: perhaps even an elderly one who forgot to recharge his electric shaver. At any rate, he quotes someone called Carlin who thinks that God is 'an invisible man living in the sky.' He strongly implies that he thinks that the story of the ascension of Jesus means that Christians think that Jesus came from the sky and went back there. He quotes an atheist blogger who describes God as a 'sky-fairy.' And he begins the book with an enormously revealing quote from Douglas Adams.
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
Dawkins thinks that Christians think that along with the rose bush, the nasturtium and the lawn-mower, there is one more object in the garden, namely, a fairy. So naturally, he searches the garden. When an extensive finger-tip search fails to turn up any little people with gossamer wings he concludes that there are no fairies and that any Christian who carries on saying that there are is being perverse.
But, but, but....Does Dawkins – did Adams? -- honestly not know that these simply aren't the kinds of fairies that Christians believe in? That even if you widened your search and eventually tracked down a little commune in Glastonbury where the fairies who designed the garden, planted the seeds and installed the fashionable water-feature were currently living you still wouldn't have found the kind of fairy we believe in? We don't believe that there are fairies in the garden. Or anywhere else. You'd be much better off saying that we think that the garden is in the fairies.
I suggested in my last sermon that if Oolon Coluphid had tracked down the 'God' who had left a message in five mile high letters of fire on the Quentulus Quazgar Mountains, he still wouldn't have found the person who actually created the The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy -- namely, Douglas Adams. Dorothy L Sayers pressed the idea that 'God is like an author' quite hard, and C.S Lewis practically broke it. It's also been used by Mr. Grant Morrison and Mr. David Sim. But seriously. You 'brights' will understand us Christians much better once you've grasped that when we talk about 'God', we are thinking of something much less like a fairy and much more like a Douglas.