Friday, February 16, 2007

Dawkins In the Crucible, Part 1

As I was sitting in the doctor's office (after finally admitting the need for antibiotics) last month waiting to have my three minute, $75-out-of-pocket appointment, I picked up the November issue of Time magazine which featured the debate between atheist Richard Dawkins (Oxford professor, New York Times bestselling author of The God Delusion, and one of "New Atheists") and Christian geneticist Francis Collins (director of the National Human Genome Research Institute). Besides immediately noticing the writer's bias in the opening paragraph ("In recent years, creationism took on new currency as the spiritual progenitor of "intelligent design" (I.D.), a scientifically worded attempt to show that blanks in the evolutionary narrative are more meaningful than its very convincing totality"), the article got me thinking about Dawkins' arguments and, though rivers of virtual ink have been spilled elsewhere on the blogosphere on this subject, prompted me to post some responses of my own to some of Dawkins' reasoning and the exchange in general. This post will be dedicated to one point he made; others will follow examining some of his other claims and how Collins responded (in no particular order other than what strikes my fancy first).

At one point in the interview/debate, Dawkins made the point he has made elsewhere (as have others in recent years) regarding the problem that the apparent fine-tuning of the laws of physics to enable the existence of life has posed for naturalists:

TIME: Both your books suggest that if the universal constants, the six or more characteristics of our universe, had varied at all, it would have made life impossible. Dr. Collins, can you provide an example?

COLLINS: The gravitational constant, if it were off by one part in a hundred million million, then the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang would not have occurred in the fashion that was necessary for life to occur. When you look at that evidence, it is very difficult to adopt the view that this was just chance. But if you are willing to consider the possibility of a designer, this becomes a rather plausible explanation for what is otherwise an exceedingly improbable event--namely, our existence.

DAWKINS: People who believe in God conclude there must have been a divine knob twiddler who twiddled the knobs of these half-dozen constants to get them exactly right. The problem is that this says, because something is vastly improbable, we need a God to explain it. But that God himself would be even more improbable.

This remark only goes to show how limited and wedded to his own philosophical naturalism Dawkins truly is - it is a straw man, but judging from what I have read of Dawkins, he is incapable of seeing this due to his commitment to naturalism. Why is it a straw man argument? First, the concept of "vast improbability" needs to be contextualized. When we say this fine-tuning is "vastly improbable," we mean it is improbable given a closed system of natural causes. In other words, probability (in loose and simplified terms) refers to the likelihood that such-and-such would happen given the laws of nature. We cannot lose sight of this context in this discussion.

The second and third points follow from the first: no thinking Christian theist worth his salt is going to claim that God is subject to natural causes for an explanation of his existence. Hence, labeling God as an "improbability" is simply a category error - God is not the kind of thing that is subject to the laws of nature, even in principle (note: I am not arguing for the existence of God here; I am saying that God as conceived and argued by Christians, which is what Dawkins is trying to refute, cannot in principle be refuted by appealing to improbabilities. Though the probability of a naturalistic explanation for the laws of physics being fine-tuned to allow for life can be argued against validly, in that it fulfills the category requirements of probabilities - which is the starting point for Intelligent Design). So Dawkins is arguing against a straw man in that he is positing a God no Christian theists (barring possibly Mormons) believe in, though it seems to me that there is a bit of slight-of-hand going on here on Dawkins' part that makes this hard to see.

So, to sum up: 1) Probabilities are things that apply only to natural phenomena; 2) God does not exist as a natural phenomenon; therefore 3) probabilities do not apply to the existence of God, and any arguments against the existence of God based on his supposed improbable nature commit a category error and are fallacious. Moreover, if all natural explanations for the fine-tuning problem fall prey to vast improbabilities or unverifiable/unfalsifiable assertions (see my next installment for more on this), and invoking an intelligent designer as an explanation does not in fact appeal to an even greater improbability, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the theist offers the better explanation for this problem.


Holopupenko said...

     Good post. A few comments if you don’t mind.
     First, you should be ready for Dawkins’ oldie-but-goodie retort to the way you phrase the syllogism near the end. The syllogism, from my perspective, is both valid and sound. Yet Dawkins would say (which he typically does): “Well, that’s very convenient, isn’t it? You make God supernatural, and hence no human can explain God: you push the problem into an area that is not verifiable or testable by the sciences, and therefore you get away with… your murderous God.” There are a lot of things wrong with such a response, which I won’t get into now. Maybe you could start a separate post on this very issue.
     Second, his own sloppiness not withstanding, I believe that if you pressed Dawkins he would admit the mathematical tool of statistics cannot be used (by assigning probabilities) directly to prove or disprove (can’t prove a negative) the existence of God, just as one cannot use the data of the modern empirical sciences to do so. (Mathematical formalisms are by definition abstraction from the full ontological import of reality and therefore limited in their explanatory efficacy.) The point is data and information do not and can not interpret themselves. Interpretation requires a mind (a nous)—a mind that “sees” beyond the immediately sensory-accessible knowledge by reasoning beyond it.(*)
     But this is where Dawkins traps himself. At its base, Materialism circles back upon the data to allegedly demonstrate that only material things exist. But a circular argument is fallacious from the perspective of formal logic. Moreover then, from the perspective of material logic within this formally illicit context, the content of the premises don’t work: simple matter cannot “know” anything for that begs the question of what “knowing” is in the first place. (At this point materialists and naturalists will typically point to “emergent properties” or something similar to whitewash over this huge problem, but these only push the issue further away into the realm of “we don’t know yet”.) For example, the mind reasons to the concept “the day after tomorrow,” yet no modern empirical science can observe for you “the day after tomorrow.” This, among other examples, point to the immateriality of the human capacity to reason… and it’s all down hill from there for materialists. Now, inasmuch as Naturalism in its methodology presupposes Materialism, it stumbles as well. Naturalism ultimately reduces the immaterial mind to the material brain, but (as just noted) this undermines the very ability of Naturalism to interpret what it presupposes from the data: if there is no mind (i.e., if there is only a material brain) then material cannot “know” material.
     This is not the fallacy of “greedy reductionism” by which Daniel Dennett tries to silence any opposition to his views. First, the reductionism is inherent in the Naturalism, not in those opposing it. Second, “emergent properties” explain nothing and commit a category error: to draw the analogy mind is to brain as spinning is to wheel misunderstands the ontological difference between the accident “quality” (spinning) and the substance (wheel) in which the accident inheres.
     Anyway, much more can be said on these issues. The point is, Dawkins will not be granted a free lunch in these debates… but we need to be ready to expose (in detail) the false currency by which he tries to purchase that lunch. You were correct in you approach… I just wanted to help “put some more meat on the bones.”
     Keep up the good work!
     (*) Physics can reason to the existence of things not yet observable—the neutrino is a well-known example. But in this context two things are presupposed: (1) the syllogism uses as its terms things accessible to physics, (2) a human mind is required to do the reasoning in the first place. Physics cannot reason to the existence of God by itself: (1) not all the terms of the syllogism are of the same ontological order, (2) reasoning beyond the data accessible to physics to the existence of the human mind, the incorruptibility of the human soul, or to the existence of God requires the tools and methodologies of metaphysics.
     This is, by the way, one of the reasons I have a problem with the ID movement. If ID uses the modern empirical sciences to point out weaknesses in neo-Darwinism and to “point” to explanations beyond the modern empirical sciences (and hence itself), then that’s fine. However, if it takes upon itself an explanation (in the full sense) of complexity as observed in living things by positing a designing mind, then it is no longer a science but a philosophy. Don’t get me wrong: that’s fine as long as the clarification is made. I don’t mean to open that can of worms here—just using it as another example of the need for careful thinking.

Aaron Snell said...


Thanks for the comments. That's really my purpose for this blog - I want my ideas tested, and I'm glad to hear I didn't construct an invalid syllogism! (Actually, this was one of my worries - I had strutinized it before posting, but I was afraid I had missed something.)

You're right, that is the retort Dawkins uses (in this same debate, even), and it is quite problematic. I may post on this later, as well as on the concept of "emerging properties," though the next post will probably be on his naturalistic solutions to the fine-tuning problem given in the interview.

Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Nicholas Jenkins said...

I have no inherent problem in the idea that is simply beyond our understanding and comprehension. Call it God, call it alien life, call it a Twinkie (I mean, how do they get the cream on the INSIDE!?!?! amazing) but what I don't like is anyone saying anything is irrefutable evidence of such and such.

The mysteries of the universe are intriguing because they are mysteries. That's why we argue and debate so much over and over again over these simple things. If you're playing a game of clue, and the cards tell you one thing, but your opponent CLEARLY sees another outcome... well, friction.

I'm not a fan of creationism being taught in a public school setting, but I do wish theology classes were available as electives. But, as my wife points out to me, that could cause problems as well. But I don't feel that creationism belongs in a science class. Of course 50% of what's taught in a science class doesn't belong there either. I think science should be about measuring and proving natural phenomena. And as you put it; God is not a "natural" phenomenon. It is something that exists outside of that which can be measured or proved. It can be believed or disbelieved based on one's own personal experiences.

The problems arise with both sides (atheists and theists) that seem to set out to argue and, with a wink of their eye, condescend until they have either forced a stalemate or have run out of gas. It's unproductive. I read this article in time (ironically when I was in a hospital waiting room as well) and found myself growing impatient with the article rather quickly. I always hate to see people immediately write off a world beyond math and science. I also am annoyed at the idea of "The answer is... CHRISTIAN GOD"... I mean, what if it's that Zoroastrian guy... ya... that guy.

Aaron Snell said...

I should add that the Dawkinsian (did I just type "Dawkinsian"?!?) rebuttal you paraphrased only works if I am trying to make a positive argument for the existence of God. I am not, as I clearly said in my post. Rather, I am making the argument that Dawkins cannot validly object to the existence of God in the manner he has. So the response you summarized in fact misses the point in a very important way (not that you missed the point, but that Dawkins does fairly regularly, from what I can tell).

Aaron Snell said...


Actually, I'm not a fan of creationism being taught in public schools, either - I think the debate has to happen first in the scientific community on the scientific status of Intelligent Design and the merits of its interpretation of the data. But I do think students need to be aware of the debate - that there are reputable scientists who once taught Darwinian evolution who have abandoned that theory in light of the evidence and have turned to ID to explain the data.

But I disagree that belief in the existence of God can only be based on personal experience - many people have, in fact, come to believe in God based on the weight of the evidence.

As to your last point, I suppose it could be that Zoroastrian guy; it's even possible that all we are is a butterfly dreaming. But just because something is possible does not mean it is reasonable for me to believe it. I don't see (at least in my case) the answer of "so...CHRISTIAN GOD" as being any sort of default conclusion - it's a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence. One must look at why someone comes to the Christian God conclusion before writing it off. There may be more in the elipses (...) than you think.