Blogging Archives #5: Review of “The God Delusion:” A Biologist’s Failed Foray Into Philosophy

I wrote this review of The God Delusion in February of 2010.  The review was incredibly long (about 7500 words) because, well, there was a lot wrong with the book, but I’ve tried to shorten it considerably here, deleting most of it in favor of just discussing his main argument.

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A few years ago, I ordered The God Delusion by the “world’s most famous atheist,” Richard Dawkins, and I nearly instantly regretted the decision.  Not only was the book full of horrendous arguments, the arrogant attitude and petty insults wear on the reader pretty quickly.  Reading it was difficult, not because it is difficult to understand but because most of the time I felt like I was wading through feces trying to get to the end.  For any informed theist, there is nothing threatening about the book, as the only thing it succeeds in doing is showing Dawkins’ ineptitude in making arguments.  What it does threaten, however, is the fruitfulness of the debate itself, particularly among lay people.  Because Dawkins has captured the imagination of so many self-styled “intellectuals” and so many who already have bitter feelings towards religion, he has convinced them that belief in God is only for the intellectually inferior.  Thus, while Dawkins does not threaten theism, he threatens to bog down the discussion for so many people due to the amount of garbage he is spewing out.  This is very unfortunate, and it is largely the reason why I decided to review the book now.

I want to make this much clear: I am not here attempting to build a case for theism.  This review merely shows that Richard Dawkins completely fails at his stated task of showing that belief in God is not only a mistake but a delusion.  Indeed, if a reader of the book is paying attention, he will notice that Dawkins often substitutes arguments with flurries of quotations, anecdotes, and rants that are insignificant to the actual issue at hand. Ultimately, people should realize that if you want to engage in this debate intelligently, Richard Dawkins is not the person to look to.

Dawkins and vacuous rhetoric

There is a great deal wrong with the book, enough to fill up another volume on its own.  For space considerations, I’ll focus on the main argument, which is found in chapter 4, along with a small discussion on the chapters leading up to it.

The first chapter is classic Richard Dawkins: Use ridicule in place of argument. Much of it is a waste of time debating the religious beliefs of Albert Einstein, as if a serious reader who is looking for actual arguments would really care.  This sets his bombastic tone throughout the work, as chapter 2 begins with one of the book’s most famous quotations, which is basically a large rant about the God of the Old Testament and his “insipidly opposite Christian face,” Jesus (31).  To many atheists, this is a genius rant.  To those concerned about substance, this is more time-wasting.  

At least Dawkins tries to tackle some classical arguments for God’s existence in chapter 3, but he mostly whiffs at even addressing them, showing that he evades the intellectual work required and relies on mockery.  The clearest example of this is Dawkins’ incompetent handling of the ontological argument.  Instead of engaging it, he resorts to playground insults that he accuses the argument of using (80).  Dawkins goes on to assert that, “The very idea that grand conclusions could follow from such logomachist trickery offends me aesthetically” (81).  It seems rather that, due to his poor logic, he finds actual argument the thing that is most offensive. There is no serious discussion of this argument; in fact, Dawkins even lists parodies of the argument that he found on the internet, as if these are supposed to prove his point (85).  Not only does Dawkins fail to address Anselm, he is not remotely aware of modern formulations of the argument from philosophers like Alvin Plantinga.  What is even more amusing is that he is contemptuous that philosophers would dare use modal logic to dismantle his parody of the argument (84), an embarrassing complaint because the ontological argument is in fact a practice of modal logic.  One need not trouble Dawkins with logic, that bothersome thing.

As we get to his main argument in chapter 4, it is worth remembering Dawkins’ great ambition: It is not enough that his argument simply casts doubt on belief in God but “comes close to proving that God does not exist” (113).  It is by this lofty standard that his argument will be judged.

To start, he introduces the famous Boeing 747 argument of Fred Hoyle, where Hoyle reportedly commented that the probability of life beginning by chance is about the same as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and creating an airplane (113).  It is a popular argument among creationists, but Dawkins scorns them because this argument works against the theist.  If this Boeing 747 is so astronomically improbable, surely God, who would be incredibly complex, is even more improbable.  Contrary to any design hypothesis, Darwinian evolution gives a simple explanation on how complex life forms came about (116).  With this in mind, he gives six summarizing statement for his “central argument:”

1.  One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2.  The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself…

3.  The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.  The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability.  It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable…

4.  The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection…

5.  We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics.  Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology.  This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck.  But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6.  We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.  But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.  (157-158)

From these, Dawkins concludes that “God almost certainly does not exist” (158).

There is much that can be said about this argument, yet if a theist so wished because he had to pick up his kids from soccer practice in ten minutes, he could refute this argument quickly with this simple consideration: Even if all six premises are granted, the conclusion does not follow.  As William Lane Craig points out, the most that can be concluded is that God’s existence should not be inferred from the appearance of design (21).  That does not address belief in God on other grounds, grounds that include the arguments that Dawkins so woefully handled in the previous chapter.  So much for the “central argument.”

Since I do not have kids, much less ones that play soccer, I will say more.  Let us give Dawkins a break and lessen his grand claim to a more modest one.  Even with this modification, this is still not a very good argument because the premises are pretty questionable.  In Premise 3, Dawkins argues that God is so improbable because he is extraordinarily complex.  However, he fails to give an argument for God’s complexity.  First off, in classical theology, God is simple and not complex, and Dawkins does not address the arguments for this but resorts to ridicule (150).  Furthermore, as Plantinga argues, God is not even simple by the definition given by Dawkins in his own Blind Watchmaker, which defines complexity as having parts that are unlikely to have been arranged by chance.  Since God is immaterial and does not have parts, God is not even complex according to Dawkins himself.  Not exactly a great start here.

Also, this entire argument based on God’s alleged complexity is confused.  When theists posit a designer for a particular instance of organized complexity, they are not trying to give an explanation for complexity itself.  It is perfectly acceptable to explain one instance of complexity by another so long as one is not trying to explain complexity in general.  If an archaeological dig unearths some pottery, they are justified in positing some sort of civilization that created this pottery without explaining what exactly the civilization was and how it got there.  In addition, Dawkins confuses the simplicity of an argument with the simplicity of the entity that is used in an explanation.  Craig’s example is worth repeating:

Think, for example, of our archaeologists’ postulating a human fabricator to explain the arrowheads they discovered. A human being is a vastly more complex entity than an arrowhead, but the hypothesis of a human designer is a very simple explanation. It is certainly more simple than the hypothesis that the artifacts were the unintended result of, say, a stampede of buffalo that chipped a rock to look like an arrowhead. The point is that rival hypotheses are assessed by the criterion of simplicity, not the entities they postulate. (23)

It is also worth mentioning that simplicity is not the only criterion for a good argument; if a complex argument does a better job in terms of explanatory power, it will be taken as the better explanation.  Thus, even if we were to grant that God is complex, this premise is a confused mess.

Premises 5 and 6 do no better.  It is telling that Dawkins admits to the weakness of the “cranes” of physics but nonetheless sticks to his naturalistic guns. I guess Dawkins should be commended for his strong faith in his naturalism.  He apparently believes that the limitless chance provided by the multiverse theory is enough to avoid appeals to a designer despite the apparently specific fine-tuned conditions for life.  What sort of explanation is this?  Dawkins spent some time scorning “God of the gaps” theories (125), and yet it is okay to appeal to virtually infinite chance?  Isn’t this just “chance of the gaps?”  Why can we not ask where the multiverse came from?  Dawkins seems to sense the potential problems here and tries to solve the situation with this:

The key difference between the genuinely 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. (147)

This is a strange explanation.  Not only is it not self-evident in the least that the multiverse is simple (it actually is not, as any multiverse would need fine-tuning itself in order to “produce” universes within it in an orderly way), even if we were to assume that it is, this does not make it a better explanation.  As briefly talked about above, the simplicity of the entities used in the explanation have little to do with the simplicity of the explanation itself.  In addition, appeals to limitless chance begin to make rational explanation especially difficult.  Suppose I were to be dealt 17 royal flushes in a row while playing poker.  I should then be dutifully angry at those who accuse me of cheating, because after all, surely one universe of the multiverse is such a way that I am dealt such hands, and lucky me, I am in that universe!  It is clear Dawkins already has a conclusion in mind (God is incredibly improbable) and is determined to get there, even if he has to (improbably?) appeal to massive amounts of chance, an explanation hardly less of a cop out than the “God of the gaps” attitude he caricatures.  Of course, this whole discussion is a bit beside the point because it is doubtful that the multiverse hypothesis, even if granted, helps him much at all.  Suppose that there really is a multiverse and it is rational to assume that at least a few universes are fit for life.  It is still very improbable that this universe happens to be one of them.  Furthermore, what evidence does Dawkins give for even believing that there is such an ensemble of universes?  (See Craig’s discussion on Dawkins’ use of the World Ensemble, 15-21).

To help his case, Dawkins appeals to the anthropic principle (141), which states that we should not be shocked that the universe is fine-tuned for our existence because if it wasn’t, we would not be around to think about it.  He argues, “It follows from the fact of our existence that the laws of physics must be friendly enough to allow life to arise” (141).  This is not an argument but just an observation.  One cannot explain what seems improbable by simply observing that it has occurred.  If a man passed out in a fire and woke up in a safe place outside, he should not be surprised that he is wondering how he survived (obviously, if he was dead, he wouldn’t be wondering), but he would still wonder how he survived in the first place.  The fact that something improbable has happened does not mean we should not be surprised that it did happen (and perhaps we even should be suspicious about it).

This argument fails on so many different levels.  First, the conclusion does not even follow from the premises.  Second, the premises themselves are weak, and Dawkins thrusts forth explanations depending upon a very speculative multiverse that conveniently gives him the ability to appeal to limitless luck and a mere observation that, hey, we are alive and talking about this!  Keep in mind that there is no need to challenge the scope of Darwinian evolution here.  We can grant the theory and still easily show that Dawkins’ argument falls flat on its face scarcely after it begins.  As the kids like to say these days:  Epic fail.

Conclusion

It is obvious that Dawkins enjoys lobbing critiques (and mightily misinformed ones at that) at theism but seems most displeased when his own position is also critiqued.  This double standard is also seen in his treatment of evil: Dawkins spends some time in chapter 7 showing the evils of religion, but then oddly, when discussing the atheist Stalin, he writes, “We are not in the business of counting evil heads and compiling two rival roll calls of iniquity.”  Biologist H. Allen Orr incredulously asks, “We’re not?  We were forty-five pages ago.”

Going through the book again, it is a marvel how educated people can think it contains good arguments.  The God Delusion suffers from what some may call “delusions of grandeur,” because while Dawkins so ambitiously seeks to destroy theism, he only succeeds in embarrassing himself with a litany of poor arguments and fits of amateurish behavior.  What use is this book?  Perhaps only to show how not to engage in intelligent debate.  A philosophy student who is bored might have fun thumbing through it and picking out fallacies, but that’s about it.  In its actual contribution to the discussion of religion and God, The God Delusion offers next to nothing.  I will end with the words of Orr, who is not religious himself: “If such discussions [between science and religion] are to be worthwhile, they will have to take place at a far higher level of sophistication than Richard Dawkins seems either willing or able to muster.”  Quite clearly, it’s both.

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2 thoughts on “Blogging Archives #5: Review of “The God Delusion:” A Biologist’s Failed Foray Into Philosophy

    • Why don’t you try engaging the points made here rather than resorting to tactics that gloss over everything in an attempt to avoid hard thinking. It’s characteristic of Dawkins and many of the New Atheists, no doubt, but it’s hardly helpful.

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