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Mon, 18 May 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 1: Overlooking the Idea of God

Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion is one of the cornerstones of the so-called New Atheism. After reading this book, I found that it utterly fails to build a convincing case for atheism. I'd like to offer my opinions on this book in a series of posts to this blog.

The most serious flaw in The God Delusion is that it misses the idea of God almost completely. Dawkins focuses on one particular idea of God: that of a supernatural creator of the universe, as presented in traditional theism and deism (pp. 11-15, 18-19, 31). He admits that he is trying to debunk only the supernatural idea of God (pp. 15, 31). The only other idea of God that Dawkins even considers is pantheism, which he equates to the poetic use of the word "God" to describe the physical universe or its laws (p. 18). By leaving the reader with only these choices, Dawkins bypasses the many well-considered philosophical conceptions of God that do not fit either of these categories. Thus, he cannot debunk these other ideas.

Dawkins begins this mistake by ignoring all forms of pantheism that do not fit his narrow definition of "pantheism." Dawkins' description of pantheism fits some versions of pantheism, but is grossly inaccurate for other forms. Among these other forms are the pantheistic viewpoints of Schelling, Heraclitus, and Bruno, and Eastern philosophies such as Advaita Vedanta. In various ways, these philosophies identify God or the divine with the whole of reality or with the underlying principle of the universe. However, they do not equate God to a universe regarded as a mere collection of material particles. Some forms of pantheism depict the mental and spiritual features of reality as real and significant — at least as significant as the physical features of the cosmos. Thus, they do not reduce God to a mere poetic name for the physical universe known to science.

Dawkins' handling of Spinoza is especially revealing. Spinoza probably is the best known of Western pantheists. His philosophy, born in the early days of modern science, stressed the unity of nature and the immutability of natural law. Dawkins mentions Spinoza and notes that Einstein approved of Spinoza's idea of God (p. 18). However, this mention of Spinoza seems ironic, because Spinoza's pantheistic philosophy simply does not fit Dawkins' narrow definition of "pantheism." Spinoza identified God with nature, but he also held that nature has mental as well as physical properties [1]. According to Spinoza, the natural universe itself is not merely a physical system, but also is intrinsically spiritual. Spinoza's God is impersonal, but has mental and spiritual features, making it a bit more like a "someone" than a mere "something." After reading Spinoza's Ethics, it would be silly to equate Spinoza's pantheism to "sexed-up atheism" — which is Dawkins' characterization of pantheism (p. 18). Indeed, Spinoza himself denied that he would equate God to nature if nature were thought of as strictly material [2]. Spinoza's God is impersonal and natural, but is a real supreme being, not merely a sexed-up collection of lumps of matter. Despite the sharp differences between Spinoza's view of God and the standard Christian views, the Christian writer Novalis had good reason to label Spinoza "the god-intoxicated man" [3].

Besides neglecting most forms of pantheism, the book also ignores many other philosophical conceptions of God. There are ideas of God that portray God as something besides the physical universe, but that do not involve (or could exist without) belief in miraculous supernatural action. Some philosophers have proposed theories of God like this; offhand, the names of G. H. Howison, Charles Hartshorne and Aristotle come to mind [4]. Dawkins' polemic bypasses these ideas almost as if they did not exist. He simply sorts ideas of God into two bags — the supernatural, miracle-working creator from traditional religion (together with its simpler variant, the God of deism), and the poetically described material world with no real God. Any form of belief in God that doesn't fit into one of these two bags simply fades from view.

By ignoring all these philosophical conceptions of God, Dawkins forfeits any claim to have built a case against God. At most, he has shown that traditional Western religious conceptions of God are inadequate. This does not imply atheism. At most, it implies that those who believe in the traditional version of God should either become atheists or adopt improved ideas about God. (Whether Dawkins has accomplished even this much is a separate topic.)

This slighting of non-supernatural ideas of God contributes to Dawkins' high-handed treatment of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA concept (pp. 54-61). According to NOMA, science and religion each have their own areas in which they are authoritative. If NOMA is right, then religion should not dictate about matters in the area of science, such as evolution and cosmology, and science should not dogmatize about matters of the meaning of existence, which belong to religion. The NOMA idea is quite reasonable. It is close to what many liberal, modernist believers in God already believe. (If you think the Genesis story can't be literally true because it contradicts science, then you already are practicing NOMA to some degree.) Of course, most religions today do not obey NOMA. Instead, they postulate literal miraculous happenings that science might, in principle, be able to evaluate. Dawkins correctly recognizes this, and observes that a religion that follows NOMA would be quite different from most religions practiced today (p. 60). Dawkins could have taken this observation to some reasonable conclusion. For example, he could have claimed that today's religions need to be reformed and modernized, leading to liberal forms of religion that take miracle stories to be spiritual lessons instead of physical facts. Instead, he uses the occasion to rake NOMA over the coals. He even makes the nasty suggestion that Gould was insincere in his embrace of NOMA (pp. 57-58). To support this putdown of the brilliant Gould, Dawkins trots out the claim that Gould personally was skeptical of the existence of God (p. 58). Needless to say, Gould's personal belief or disbelief in God is totally irrelevant to Gould's sincerity in embracing NOMA. One can believe that religion is a legitimate field of study and still come to a personal decision to be an agnostic or an atheist in the field of religion. (It's much like studying a particular field of physics and finally embracing a theory that denies some commonly accepted concepts in that field. No insincerity required!) None of Dawkins' overheated criticisms of NOMA cast any doubt on the rational acceptability of NOMA. Of course, making NOMA look bad is useful for Dawkins, because if NOMA were right his science-centered polemic against God might lose its grip.

The main line of argument in The God Delusion is an attempt to debunk supernatural concepts of God, especially those that involve supernatural creation or intervention. Because not all concepts of God require supernatural happenings or even a supernatural God, the book does not succeed in debunking God. It fails as a polemic for atheism. The most this book can do is undermine traditional religious conceptions of God, then leave us on our own to decide about the conceptions of God put forth by philosophers and reason-friendly religionists. Whether the book can do even that much is a separate question.

Why does Dawkins ignore almost all philosophical conceptions of God? It might be a symptom of a more general problem: a striking failure to handle philosophical ideas correctly [5]. One can catch a whiff of this failure at various points in the book. I'll give a few examples here.

In a discussion of traditional Christian ideas about the Trinity (p. 33), Dawkins refers to a teaching of Arius that makes use of the philosophical concepts of "substance" and "essence." Philosophers (including atheistic ones) are likely to have some idea of what these terms mean, for philosophers have thought about puzzles involving substance and essence since the time of the ancient Greeks. However, when Dawkins asks rhetorically what these terms mean, his answer is " 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply" (p. 33). This is simply wrong. One can love or hate theology, but either way, the terms "substance" and "essence" do mean something. They are standard philosophical terms with real meanings.

Another example of bad philosophy (and also of substituting ridicule for thought) is Dawkins' discussion of the ontological argument for the existence of God (pp. 80-85). This is a famous argument put forth by Anselm of Canterbury in the Middle Ages. Dawkins' treatment of this argument is both emotional and coarse. He calls the argument "infantile," and then gives a silly scenario in which children on the playground argue about God using some of same words used in the real argument (p. 80). Despite the tone of snide self-assurance in that passage, Dawkins gets the ontological argument wrong! Scholars have known for decades that Anselm wrote down at least two distinct versions of the ontological argument [6]. The first version was more or less preliminary; apparently Anselm himself was dissatisfied with it, for he presented a second version in the next chapter of his book. The second version is more sophisticated and is not nearly as vulnerable to attack. The full analysis of this second version requires modern techniques of logic. However, the version that Dawkins quotes is the first version (p. 81). It is pretty clear that his ridiculous playground scene also is based on this first version. As Hartshorne pointed out in 1965, many past philosophers made the mistake of critiquing the first version of the argument and ignoring the second [7]. However, there is no excuse for this mistake today; we simply know better. Dawkins either does not know or does not bother about the second version of the argument. He just goes ahead and quotes and ridicules the weak first draft of the argument, as if that were an effective attack on the ontological argument.

Toward the end of his attack on the ontological argument, Dawkins mentions the time he presented a bogus argument, resembling the ontological argument, to a meeting of philosophers and theologians. Dawkins says: "They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong." (p. 84; capitalization in original). Read in context, this remark seems snide, as though forcing the philosophers and theologians to use modal logic were a gloating victory. Does Dawkins even know that modal logic is a respectable mathematical discipline, and that modal logic is necessary for the rational analysis of almost any argument about possible entities that might not be real? To me at least, the book gave no answer to this question.

Still another example of a crude approach to philosophy comes from Dawkins' discussion of mind-transfer scenarios (p. 180). Dawkins mentions two fictional stories in which people find that they have swapped minds, with the mind of one now existing in the body of the other. Dawkins claims, without much argument, that "the plot makes sense only to a dualist" and that such stories could happen in real life only if the personality is somehow distinct from the body (p. 180). A little philosophical reading shows that the truth is not so simple. In real life, philosophers have studied mind-transfer scenarios in great detail — and some materialist philosophers have seriously considered that they might be logically possible [8]. One can be a materialist, with no belief in a nonphysical mind, and still find it possible for the mind of person A to enter the body of person B. All one has to do is suppose that the two persons' brains are reorganized in a way that makes one of the brains continue the memories and conscious life of the other. Needless to say, this experiment would be an enormous feat in real life. Today's science is nowhere near being able to do it. However, this feat would be possible in principle even if dualism is false. If Dawkins offered any real argument for his opposite opinion on this topic, I might take his opinion seriously — but he offers no real argument.

These examples are far from my original topic of the idea of God. I mention them only to show that Dawkins' book contains some strikingly crude treatments of philosophical ideas. Perhaps this helps to explain why the most interesting ideas of God — the philosophically well-considered ones — are almost entirely absent from this book.




Page numbers for The God Delusion refer to the edition listed under "Works Cited," below.

[1]   Spinoza, Ethics. See especially Part 2 Proposition 7, including the following "scholium" or note, and Part 2 Proposition 13, especially the following note. Also see Durant, pp. 134-143.

[2]   See the excerpt from Spinoza's letter, in Durant, p. 132.

[3]   Quoted in Durant, p. 149.

[4]   The works of Aristotle are well-known. Hartshorne's ideas are well-known too, within the rubric of "process theology." His idea of God is discussed in his several books. Howison also is important in the history of philosophy, but appears to be less well-known than Aristotle and Hartshorne. His main work is The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays.

[5]   I am not the first to comment on Dawkins' inadequate treatment of philosophical ideas. Plantinga has mentioned Dawkins' "jejune" and "sophomoric" handling of some philosophical matters (see Plantinga, "The Dawkins Confusion").

[6]   See Hartshorne. The first version of Anselm's ontological argument is in Anselm's Proslogium, Chapter 2. The second version is in Chapter 3.

[7]   Hartshorne, especially pp. 12-18.

[8]   See Shoemaker, pp. 108 ff.


Works Cited

Anselm. Proslogium. Trans. Sidney Norton Deane, ed. Paul Halsall. [], accessed 5/18/09. In: Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook (cited below).

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006)

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1953)

Halsall, Paul (ed.) Internet Medieval Sourcebook. [], accessed 5/18/2009.

Hartshorne, Charles. Anselm's Discovery. (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1965)

Howison, G. H. The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays. (N.Y.: The Macmillan Co., 1901)

Plantinga, Alvin. "The Dawkins Confusion." Books & Culture, March 1, 2007, [], accessed 5/10/2009.

Shoemaker, Sydney. "Personal Identity: a Materialist's Account." In: Sydney Shoemaker and Richard Swinburne, Personal Identity. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984)

Spinoza, Baruch. Spinoza Selections. Ed. John Wild. (N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958)

N.B.: Spinoza's Ethics comes in several versions. Durant's chapter on Spinoza is a valuable introductory discussion of this philosopher. See especially Section 2, "Matter and Mind."


(Post slightly updated on 22 May 2009.)


posted at: 23:21 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry


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