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:
THE ARGUMENT FROM LACK OF DESIGN
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:
THE ARGUMENT FROM PROBABILITY
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:
THE ARGUMENT FROM EVOLUTION
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.
THE ARGUMENT FROM GOD
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.

17 comments:

Taradino C. said...

You seem to be overlooking a key difference between "THE ARGUMENT FROM EVOLUTION" and "THE ARGUMENT FROM GOD", namely that in the second step, you're reducing very different lines of reasoning into the same two words, "in fact".

The existence of God must be taken on faith, and so it's only a "fact" to someone who has chosen to put his faith in the existence of God, or in the infallibility of the Bible. The existence of evolution is a fact to anyone who cares to look at the observable evidence. The two arguments are only "precisely the same" to the degree you're willing to gloss over that important difference.

Paul Wright said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Wright said...

[reposted: I mucked up a URL, and preview doesn't].

Dawkins is interested in the Gods of the big monotheisms, so it's not surprising that Thor isn't covered by his definition.

I don't think Dawkins's "Ultimate 747" argument is the same as arguing from the evolution of the rest of the universe that God is unnecessary (the sort of agenda that creationists fear all "Darwinists" have). Rather, he's pointing out that sticking a complex thing in as a pre-supposition is, as you say, cheating. Regardless of whether the complex thing is "outside" the universe (which might or might not mean anything), the complex thing has some kind of structure (or substance, if you prefer) which must be explained. It's not an explanation itself.

Dawkins's argument is not so much that we should expect to find God in the universe, but that we should expect to find evidence of his activity if he does the sorts of things that major religions believe he does. ISTM that's what Dawkins's disagreement with "non-overlapping magisteria" is about.

Some reviewers of the book have berated Dawkins for his lack of theological sophistication. They're right, in some ways. Dawkins commits some howlers about the Bible which a decent research assistant could have spotted. But then again, Dawkins is writing popular polemic. He is, in fact, addressing the sort of God which a great majority of theists believe in (can we not say that an author designed the world of his book? I'm not sure what that analogy gains you, since atheists know that Christians don't think God is material), and attempting to make his argument as broad as possible. A lot of the book is entertaining ranting, but the core arguments are there: the lack of evidence, and the cheating mentioned above. I've commented elsewhere on the reviewers who accuse Dawkins of attacking a straw God. I'd also recommend The Valve and Sean Caroll, both responding to Terry Eagleton's review, both making these points with greater effect than me.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"so far as I know no-one has ever said that Satan designed and created anything."

There was the concept of the Gnostic demiurge, however.

I write a lot about demiurgy as a metaphor for authorship, because an actual human author writing a book knows that he or she is a flawed being. Therefore, he or she necessarily stands in relation to the work as a demiurge, not as God. Tolkien's concept of subcreation is a way of attempting to redirect this kind of responsibility.

Sgloomi said...

"At any rate, he quotes someone called Carlin who thinks that God is 'an invisible man living in the sky.'"

That would be George Carlin:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Carlin

Mark said...

Dawkins clearly reads Donaldson:

"In an imperfect world, perfection cannot endure, wherefore within each of my works I must place one small flaw"

(I paraphrase Kaseryn's complaint from memory)

Gavin Burrows said...

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.

You’re probably right, but that still strikes me as a pathology. I can’t remember a scientist ever trying to tell the rest of us we shouldn’t ever appreciate the beauty of a tree. Even Dawkins seems strangely quiet on the subject. Most of us flit between the two modes of thought without even noticing. I am a big fan of the silver birch tree in my back garden. I might well think to myself something like “what a great tree that is, and how amazing to think it grew from a tiny seed.” But of course I’m applying deductive reasoning, as I never saw it grow from a tiny seed.

Your argument, it seems to me, is that Dawkins can’t see what others see and therefore infers an absence. He’s like a very petulant blind man who somehow became visual arts correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. It’s not that he can’t see God, he can’t see what the other people are on about who say they do see God.

…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.

True enough, and nicely put, but there’s a crucial difference. Firstly, creationists don’t ‘get’ scientific reasoning which is something much more verifiable and less subjective to grasp hold of. If you say “I feel a benign force which is a positive influence on my life”, I say “fair enough if you say so, but I have to say I feel nothing of the kind.” If you were to start saying “I’ve been to the National History Museum and saw no fossils of any kind, it’s clearly all a big hoax” I would say “has anyone got the number of Social Services?” Secondly, they tend not to dismiss science but instead mount some kind of hostile takeover. We’re probably all become familiar with Creationists marshalling scientific arguments when they seem to suit them, then dismissing science in its entirety when it starts to get in their way. (Usually these are the very same arguments which turn against them once applied properly, but I digress.) If they were to consistently say “nyuh, nyuh, not listening” to any kind of science whatsoever I would respect them more, quite frankly.

…which leads to another thing. Creationists are wont to argue they are the ‘true’ religionists as they have been consistent over history, and didn’t call surrender when a bunch of scientists arrived on the scene with all that annoying evidence stuff. This makes it important to note that they are doing nothing of the kind. Their formulation of religion is entirely modern. Even if they were to abandon their co-option of science they would still be reading the Bible in a post-scientific light, in a literal way, as a kind of manual. They’re kind of like the guy in the crowd in Life of Brian, who when Brian tries to begin a parable demands “what were their names then?” This comment is true of ‘fundamentalists’ in general, to the point where people are increasingly saying we should abandon such terms which grant them an association with a ‘fundament’ they don’t deserve.

I’ve not bothered much with Dawkins, I have to admit. But this and the few other commentaries I’ve read would suggest this is a publisher’s not a writer’s book. I have a mental image of Dawkins turning up on late-night BBC2 debates to discuss selfish genes and the like, which no-one watches but look good when the license fee needs renewing. Then one night some dope asks him about creationism, and he snaps back “I’m not here to talk about that rubbish, you moron!” The public tend to like a spat and the viewing figures shoot up. Pretty soon his publisher is saying to him “that insult you fired out the other night, you know I’ve been thinking that would make a great book”. The real point to Dawkins is that we’ve come to prefer fireworks to debate, to the point where we now mentally project one over the other. How many ‘lively’ message boards have you read that have actually said nothing other than “no, you’re the idiot”. The degeneration of the term ‘argument’ from ‘advancing of point of view’ to ‘slagging match’ is indicative.

'God' is quite a significant presence in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy—a minor character who is often mentioned but who never appears—like Eccentrica Gallumbits, and, indeed, like Oolon Colluphid.

For some reason it has never occurred to me before just how many religious jokes there actually are in Hitch-hiker.

Neil said...

It is my belief that there comes a time when a lurker should reveal himself, if only briefly.

I stumbled upon your blog quite by chance following a link to 'Lipstick on my Scholar' which I enjoyed a great deal, and after which I have kept coming back. I've particularly appreciated the chapters you've released from your forthcoming book 'The Darkins Delusion'.

Hopefully you wouldn't post these things publicly if you weren't happy with strangers reading them.

gareth.rees said...

It's the personal god/philosophical god bait and switch! Between believers, it's "God sent his only son to die for our sins". But when awkward sods like Dawkins come calling, it's "God is the author of existence, the ground of being, nothing to see here, move along now".

Porlock Junior said...

"Suppose you ask the question 'Why is that kettle boiling?'... 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."

It's all in Aristotle.
What do they teach the children in school these days?

Oddly enough, it was in first-year college biology that I first ran into the Four Kinds of Cause. Mainly as a "This is the kind of thing we don't do in science now that we do science right"; but it has been useful in understanding actual discourse. As useful as the correct reduction of "The present King of France is bald" into formal logical symbolism.

What does this have to do with Non-Overlapping Magisteria? Simply, the biologists were right, there is just one kind of cause in science, the one that Aristotle called efficient cause and didn't seem to think much of; and then, there are the kinds that answer (if one is lucky) all those other questions that people care about and that begin with "why".

(BTW what kind of Cold War survivor programmed a turing test for this posting that exhorts us to fkmao?)

Andrew Stevens said...

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.

Did Dawkins really say that? There are so many things wrong with that argument, it's just impossible to count them all up. The natural sciences absolutely rely, for their credibility, on precisely the sorts of "word games" Dawkins is saying we should all just dismiss. The truths of philosophy are, and must be, prior to the truths of science. Philosophy would be the poorer without science, but science can't exist without a firm philosophical basis. On that score, there can really be no dispute. I realize that there now exists a huge dispute about that issue, but this is because a great many people are badly confused, having never bothered to learn any epistemology. I am, frankly, a bit shocked to learn that Dawkins is one of them.

Zeno's Paradox, by the way, has at least two perfectly good resolutions - one mathematical (the limits of infinite sums can be a finite quantity) and one from natural science (quantum physics, which seems to imply that space is not infinitely divisible). It's not a paradox at all, though it's certainly confusing at first blush.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Dawkins did say what I said he said, but, he put it hypothetically into the mouth of Russel. He's just quoted the story of Russel throwing his tobacco tin up in the air and saying 'Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.'

"Why, I wonder, didn't he say something like: "Great Scott, the ontological argument seems to be plausible. But isn't it to good to be true that a grand truth about the cosmos shouldfollow from a mere word game. I'd better set to work to resolve what is perhaps a paradox like those of Zeno.' ... Russel himsel, of course, was as well qualified as anyone to understand why no tobacco tins should be thrown up in celebration of Achilles faliiure to catch the tortiose. Why didn't he exercise the same caution over St Anselm? I suspect that he was an exaggeratedly fair-minded atheist, over-eager to be disillusioned if logic seemed to require it."

Andrew Stevens said...

To be fair to Dawkins, that's not quite as egregious as I thought. It's not so clear that Dawkins is rejecting logical argumentation in toto (as so many of his followers, lured by the siren song of skepticism, do).

Dawkins instead should have said that Russell clearly had not yet read Thomas Aquinas's critique of the ontological argument or Immanuel Kant's (Kant's is the argument which most philosophers agree was the killing blow for the ontological argument), and therefore Russell should have reserved judgment until he finished doing his homework. (Dawkins seems to expect more of the 22 year old Russell than is reasonable, though.) In fact, that's more or less what happened. Russell eventually refined Kant's objection in his theory of descriptions - existence is a quantifier, not a predicate.

It's telling, though, that Dawkins thinks "fair-minded" is a pejorative, even though he adds the adverb "exaggeratedly."

Chestertonian Rambler said...

'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.'

I've enjoyed the article, but I have to remark...those words which you are referencing, I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

That is, they may mean one thing to Dawkins (which you are attacking), but to me I find it hard to philosophically imagine an omnipotent, omniscient and moral God who wouldn't fit into that definition. If God is a first cause, couldn't he then be said to have caused all the second causes?

It doesn't strike me as good theology to say "Don't blame the omniscient, omnipotent God of the universe that your son has Cerebral Palsy. Blame the blind forces of evolution, and praise God that the child has an eternal soul and the promise of redemption."

My point is, I don't see how a belief in 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" is in any the same as "a belief in God who created the universe in six literal days before playing 18 holes of golf on the seventh."

SK said...

I must admit myself confused. In what way is Douglas not 'a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us'?

It's a narrow definition, for sure, but I can't find anything in it which doesn't apply to the Christian conception of God as found in, say, Lewis. So what are you thinking of when you contrast the two?

whynotsmile said...

I really enjoyed this series. I'm as much of a fan of Dawkins as you are.

Alec said...

" 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?' "

What naive fools.

Anyone who has ever read Genesis 18 would know that God and his posse of angels clearly enjoy hamburgers and glasses of milk...