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Sat, 20 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 4: Evolution and the So-Called Illusion of Design

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

One of the main ideas in The God Delusion is that the apparent design in the biological world is only an "illusion of design" (p. 2 and chap. 4; see also p. 79). Dawkins is convinced that evolutionary theory shows there is no real design in the biological world. He trots out the old claim that Darwinism refutes the design argument for the existence of God (p. 79). Chapter 4 of The God Delusion is partly a rehash of the old argument that evolution shows there is no design in the biological world.

No matter how it is stated or obscured, the central idea of the evolutionary argument against design runs along the following general lines. The evolution of life is simply a resultant of small natural events involving living organisms and their genes. None of these events involves any design; each of them is mechanistic, fully obeys all natural laws, and is caused by other natural events. Therefore, the products of evolution cannot really be products of design.

This argument sounds good at first, but there is something deeply fishy about it (evolutionary pun intended). To see how questionable the argument is, compare it to the following argument about the human brain: Human thought is simply a resultant of small natural events involving neurons and their connections. None of these events involves any design; each of them is mechanistic, fully obeys all natural laws, and is caused by other natural events. Therefore, the products of human thought cannot really be products of design.

If we applied the skeptics' standard for design to the human brain instead of to Earth's biosphere, we would conclude that humans never designed anything! So much for Michelangelo and Edison! According to the scientific view of the mind and brain, human thought processes are neither more nor less than sum totals of small physical events, no single one of which itself involves any design. To avoid the absurd conclusion that humans never designed anything (which is really just an abuse of language, twisting the meaning of the word "design"), we have to admit the possibility that a natural process, composed of small unplanned physical events, can add up to a process of design. Once we admit this possibility, the argument that nature's design is an illusion ceases to be convincing. As with human feats of design, the fact that evolution is purely mechanistic and natural does not imply that its products can't be real designs. Nothing supernatural is required.

Another common argument for the illusion of design points to the flawed and conflict-ridden nature of many of the products of evolution. These faults, according to the argument, show that the designer, if there is one, must be far from perfect. It's more reasonable just to assume the products are not designed. Dawkins pulls this gambit (p. 134). However, this argument is even shallower than the above argument about small natural events. By the standard of this second argument, we should conclude once again that human creations are not designed - this time on the grounds that the human brain often (even usually) produces flawed products and preliminary versions instead of perfect final products.

I will not continue this line of rebuttal here, since I already have done that elsewhere. For the rest of my argument, see this document - and if you like, also read my book God, Son of Quark. For now I will just point out that the argument for an "illusion of design" is not as strong as it seems. In fact, it unravels at the slightest touch.

Can those who believe the orthodox scientific version of evolution (as I do) live with this conclusion? Is there any alternative to the "illusion of design" besides supernatural tinkering? Yes! To learn what the alternative is, read the two documents of mine that I just mentioned.

posted at: 23:52 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 19 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 3: Dodging the Issue of Personal Religious Experience

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. In this post I will look at Dawkins' argument against personal religious experience.

Dawkins tries to debunk personal experience as a source of religious knowledge (pp. 87-92). He builds his case in the weakest possible way: by giving flawed examples of so-called "religious" experiences. Some of the examples are experiences of real things wrongly interpreted. For example, someone hears the "diabolical" cackling of a bird (the Manx Shearwater) and thinks it is the voice of the Devil (p. 87). Other examples involve hallucinations, such as supposed ghosts or voices in one's head. Dawkins attributes these phenomena to the "simulation software" of the brain (pp. 88-90).

Despite Dawkins' apparent fascination with them, these experiences are not "religious" in any interesting sense. If Dawkins wants to build a rational case against religion, instead of merely a noisy case, he should know better than to use examples like these. Scholars of religion know of other kinds of experiences radically different from, and much subtler than, these simple mistakes. Some of these other experiences cannot be mere illusions or hallucinations, for reasons I will explain below.

There is one type of experience that, in a sense, cannot be wrong. I am referring to the experience of a property or a quality. [1]

Take, for example, Dawkins' example of the Manx Shearwater. The people who heard the noise certainly did not experience the Devil. They did not experience anything that really was devilish; the bird was not devilish, though it sounded that way. However, they did experience a sound which, as they perceived it, sounded diabolical. This quality of diabolicalness - of seeming devilish or overpoweringly sinister - is a real quality that some sounds have. This quality is not fundamentally mysterious. Presumably we could analyze it in terms of the reactions of the human nervous system, just as scientists do with other perceptible qualities of sound, like pitch, dissonance, or the phonetic qualities of speech. [2] Cultural factors, as well as physiological ones, may figure in this. Certain sounds seem devilish to some people under some circumstances. That much we know.

The people who heard the cry of the Manx Shearwater did not actually experience the Devil. However, they really did experience the quality of diabolicalness. They did not experience an evil being. They did experience a bird, but only tangentially (they didn't know it was a bird). But whatever else they experienced, they really did experience a quality. The sound really did seem devilish to them.

Experiences of qualities happen all the time in much less dramatic ways than this. When you see a red brick, you have experienced the color red, which is a quality. When you see one side of that brick, you see that it is rectangular; you perceive the quality of rectangularity. The interesting thing about perceptions of qualities is that, in some cases at least, the experience can contain a strong element of illusion and still be right. Suppose that the red brick turned out not to be red. Instead, it was yellow, but odd lighting and bright colors nearby, together with your expectation that bricks are red, made it look red. When the simulation software in your brain created the experience, it registered the brick as red instead of yellow. What happened here? You saw a brick; the brick was not actually red; but still, you really saw the color red. The property or quality of redness was, for a moment, an object of your awareness. The same idea works for rectangularity. Even if the brick did not really have rectangular sides (maybe some sides were trapezoidal but the brick was tilted), the property of rectangularity still was present to your mind.

Experiences of a quality may be reliable even if the object that seems to have the quality isn't there. To repurpose Dawkins' pink elephant example (p. 88), I would add that if you get drunk and experience a pink elephant, you have not really seen an elephant - but even though you did not see an elephant, you did experience the color pink.

What do these examples tell us about religious experience? Perhaps a lot - for, as it turns out, the only religious experiences worthy of the name are experiences of qualities. Based on what we know about colors, shapes, and the like, it's possible that these experiences really show what they seem to show, even if they also contain a strong element of illusion.

The best examples of these experiences come from a family of special states of mind known by several names: "poetical," "transcendental," "enlightened," "illuminated," or "mystical." (I prefer not to use the word "mystical," because people use that word for all kinds of silly things, including sheer occult folly.) Here I will stick with the more neutral term "spiritual experience." [3] Real spiritual experiences are not the silly experiences that Dawkins calls "religious." Instead, they are deep, refined states of mind that may happen even to the best scientists and artists. A spiritual experience is a subjective experience that seems to bring a powerful intuitive insight into the ultimate meaning of existence.

Real spiritual experiences do not happen only in connection with religion. Often they happen to poets and artists, to alert observers of nature, or to lovers. They may be called poetic insights, artistic inspirations, or moments of transcendent awareness.

Most spiritual experiences have several features in common. One of these features is the sensation of a supreme goodness or beauty that pervades or underlies the universe. Some spiritual observers come away from their experiences with the conviction that the universe is basically good, or that something perfectly and supremely beautiful lies behind the universe we see. Usually the observer also feels that he or she has gained a momentous knowledge of the true nature of reality - a knowledge that cannot be put fully into words. Interestingly, spiritual observers often feel far more awake or alert than normal. These spiritual states are not mere dream states. It feels as if consciousness expands to take in a truth deeper than anything that ordinary awareness can reach.

Can an experience like this be true? Can it give the observer genuine knowledge about reality? Elsewhere I have shown that the answer is "yes." Some experiences of this kind do yield knowledge of reality - and even knowledge that science cannot reach.

My argument for this point is laid out in my e-book God: the Next Version. (Those who want to criticize this post should read that e-book first; my full, unabridged argument is there, not here.) In that book I pointed out a way in which experiences of sublime beauty or love can give rise to experiences of a perfect being. At bottom, this perfect being is an abstract entity (actually a quality!) instead of a physical object or a ghostly "spirit." Just as with other abstract objects like redness and rectangularity, we can experience this abstract entity authentically, regardless of what in our brains is causing the experience.

Because this perfect being isn't supernatural, it doesn't fit Dawkins' definition of God. However, I showed in an earlier post that Dawkins' definition of God (p. 31) is hopelessly inadequate - it just doesn't capture most actual ideas of God. In God: the Next Version I showed that the perfect being has mental characteristics of a sort, and also encompasses the physical universe. If we regard this perfect being as God (and I think that is a logical thing to do), then some spiritual or poetic experiences really do yield knowledge of God.

This conclusion may sound mysterious at first. Certainly it will make the professional skeptics angry. However, there is nothing supernatural about all this - it's just a matter of logic! Perceptions like this can happen because the perfect being is partly an abstract entity. This brings us back to the most important part of my argument: the fact that some experiences of an abstract entity can be trustworthy, in the sense that if it seems that you have experienced the abstract entity, then you really have experienced it. I should say a few more words about this potentially upsetting idea.

The reason that even an "illusory" experience of an abstract entity can be right is that you can experience an abstract entity by means of the internal information processing that happens naturally in your brain.

Think about it this way. Ordinary sense experiences involve energies from the perceived object that cause events in the observer's brain. For example, when someone sees something, light travels from the object to the observer's eye, causing nerve impulses that in turn influence the observer's brain. For hearing, it is sound that causes events in the brain; for touch, stimuli like pressure do it; for taste and smell, chemicals cause the events. This is the way we perceive concrete physical objects with our five senses: the objects cause events in our brains.

However, not all experiences work this way. When you experience an abstract object, like a pattern or a relationship, the abstract object does not need to cause anything. Instead, your brain knows about the object by processing information that already is in your brain. One good example of this is the perception of a Moire' pattern in a print of a digital photograph. When you look at the photo, the colored toner on the print reflects light and causes events in your brain. You see the colored areas on the photo. You also notice the Moire' pattern. You don't have to reason about the pattern to see it. You just see the pattern, suddenly and intuitively. The pattern itself doesn't cause anything; only the colored toner on the print is causing events in your brain. However, you still can perceive the pattern. Your brain does this by processing information that's already in your brain from what you saw. In this way, you can verify that the pattern exists and learn much about the pattern - without once receiving a stimulus from the pattern instead of from the colored material.

Another example of knowledge without signals from an object is the understanding of a theorem in mathematics. No new sense experiences are needed. The brain just mulls over the information it already has, and a new insight emerges. In this instance too, you learn about abstract objects and relationships by processing information that's already in your brain. Your brain gains new knowledge by processing and analyzing information that it already has.

Neuroscience strongly suggests that the human self is an abstract object (a feature of the brain) instead of a separate soul. (See here and here for my take on this.) In God: the Next Version I argued that God also is an abstract object, combined with the physical and abstract objects that exemplify or show that object. If spiritual items like God and the self are abstract objects, then we should be able to learn a lot about spiritual realities the same way we learn about other abstract objects - through the brain's processing of existing information. In this way, spiritual intuition and illumination can occur without supernatural intervention. (This conclusion, by the way, is independent of my particular ideas about the nature of God and the self. If God and the self are at least partly abstract objects of any sort, then we might be able to know about spiritual realities through abstract intuition of some kind.)

The lesson from all this is that some "religious" experiences can be for real. Subjective personal experiences can indeed yield knowledge about the existence of God. I want to emphasize that there is nothing supernatural about this. It's all a matter of logic, and of the brain's capacity to recognize abstract features in existing information. Once again, the details of this line of argument are in God: the Next Version. Other relevant ideas are in my other blog, with the kindred title Religion: the Next Version.

As if I haven't said it enough, I wish to emphasize it again: Real, qualitative spiritual experience is completely different from Dawkins' silly examples of "religious" experience, such as cackling birds and voices in the head. Dawkins' attempt to debunk all religious experiences with these examples is simply too shallow and biased to go unlaughed at. Even an experience cooked up by the brain's simulation software can be a source of knowledge, as long as we focus on the qualities it shows and ignore the concrete objects it seems to reveal.

Incidentally, a correct view of spiritual experience also demolishes the argument that Dawkins gives in the section titled "The Argument from Beauty" (pp. 86-87). Dawkins points out that people often feel that the beauty of art shows there is a God. He dismisses this feeling on the grounds that no one has stated a logical argument for this link. Well, we just found the argument! Perceptions of beauty can lead to real spiritual experiences, and according to the argument in God: the Next Version, these experiences can disclose a perfect being. Perhaps the people who put forward ill-formed arguments from beauty are having spiritual experiences caused by beauty, but they just can't put their experiences into words. Dawkins' suggestion that the argument from beauty arises from "jealousy of genius" (p. 87) is as fanciful as it is nasty.

Spiritual experiences frequently give other insights besides the existence of a perfect being. For example, poets and mystics often feel that reality is unified in some deep way ("all is one"). Some mystics, mostly Buddhist meditators, get the impression that the physical universe is empty and impermanent. I won't say much about these other insights here, except to point out that they have a basis in fact. The natural world really is one, in the sense that everything is interconnected. A careful observer of nature can begin to realize this fact; no supernatural knowledge is required. A poet who focused intensely on this unity might have a sudden flash of insight that nature is One. The Buddhist who sees the universe as Void might seem to be in contradiction with the nature mystic who sees the universe as One. However, the Buddhist also is right: all physical things are impermanent, and since all physical things depend on other things for their existence, they are empty of any permanent and stable existence. The viewpoint of science and everyday consciousness, which tells us that the world is a collection of objects, also is right. Each of these three perspectives reflects a one-sided and biased view of reality, but each of them is correct in its own way. (Aren't all human experiences biased and one-sided?) Interestingly, the experiences of unity and of emptiness both involve a kind of abstract intuition: the discovery of new features in a universe that we already know.

Ironically, Dawkins comes close to recognizing the true nature of spiritual experiences. Judging by his book, he has had at least one such experience himself. Dawkins admits to having had a "quasi-mystical" experience of the natural world (p. 11). He describes his poetical attitude toward the physical universe (pp. 11-12), which could just as well be called mystical or near-mystical. The first chapter of his book is significantly titled "A Deeply Religious Non-Believer."

Dawkins obscures the link between religion and spirituality when he claims that his own deeply poetic attitude toward nature should not be called "religion" (p. 12). Dawkins is wrong about this. The poetic attitude, and the experiences that it fosters, can reveal deep aspects of reality and even can disclose the divine. What could be more religious than that? The professor whom Dawkins mentions on p. 12 was right: such experiences are indeed religious. Dawkins might have been able to figure this out if he didn't insist on a narrow definition of God that makes God supernatural (pp. 12-13, 31). Apparently, Dawkins thinks we are confused if we connect transcendent experiences to belief in God (pp. 12-13). In reality, the connection between spiritual experiences and God is real and perfectly logical. Experiences of the sublime and transcendent in nature actually are experiences of God, whether we know it or not. The God that they show us is a perfect being - not just a poetical name for the scientists' universe, as Dawkins finds some pantheists using the word "God" (p. 18). However, there is no reason to think that the God of spiritual experience is a supernatural being. Therefore, He, She or It is not quite the "God" that Dawkins is against. (Incidentally, a poet can use any of these three pronouns.)

In this post I have only begun to touch on the subject of religious experience. It took many words to do even that much. The important point is this: if Dawkins wants to address the subject of religious experience, he should concentrate on real religious or spiritual experiences, not on obviously flawed experiences. He should take into account the remarkable experiences discussed in the writings of contemplatives of East and West. He should take special account of the experiences that do not involve simulated visual or auditory images. Those experiences are the most likely to disclose something real. Dawkins also should study the insights of romantic poets from all over the world. Their poetic experiences often are spiritual to the core.

Whatever one thinks of real spiritual experiences, they are not the same as the simplistic mistakes, illusions, and mental simulations that Dawkins deploys as examples. These bogus experiences are nothing but straw men - easy to knock down if one wants to hide from the real intellectual challenge that religious experience poses. The problem of the validity of religious experience is a complex topic with many nontrivial philosophical angles. One cannot simply handwave away the whole subject, as Dawkins tries to do in The God Delusion.

Before wrapping up this post, I should mention my own view of the relation between spiritual experience and religion [4]. In my opinion, personal spiritual experience is the most important aspect of religion. It is the human mind's main method for exploring spiritual realities. I suspect that it also is the original source of most of the world's major religions. Here is how a religion might start. Some brilliant teacher, a spiritual genius, has personal experiences of the divine. This teacher, or his/her followers, write down what the teacher learned from these experiences. Since it is almost impossible to put these experiences into words, the writings are easily misunderstood. Thus we have the beginnings of an organized religion - a body of people who, though possibly well-intentioned, don't really know how to keep the original teacher's insights alive. If the original writings contain poetical words of inspiration or exhortation, these words are misunderstood and turned into dogmas and rules. Fear replaces love, and irrational faith replaces the spark of intuitive insight. In this way dogmatic religions are born - irrational systems of thought which are corrupted versions of great teachings, but which nevertheless contain grains of truth that a perceptive believer may be able to pick out from amidst the errors.

Such might be the origin of today's major world religions. Since you and I weren't there, who knows?



[1] Note to philosophers: I am bypassing the philosophical debates about infallibility and incorrigibility. If you read on, you will find out what I mean when I say that experiences of qualities "cannot be wrong." Feel free to interpret this according to your own ideas about infallibility and the like.

[2] Dawkins mentions the brain's handling of sounds and speech (p. 90).

[3] The general information on spiritual experience that I am using in this post has been distilled from the literature of religious mysticism and related topics, and also from the insights of poets. Most of the ideas are not attributable to any single source, but are part of general knowledge on these topics.

[4] My guess about the origin of religions is not original. It owes much to ideas widely held among experience-friendly thinkers on the subject.

posted at: 22:51 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 26 May 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 2: Why Dawkins' Main Argument Against God Is Wrong

In my earlier anti-Dawkins post, I explained why Richard Dawkins' conception of God, as presented in his book The God Delusion, is too narrow to be of much use. In this post I will confront Dawkins' most important argument against God: what he calls the "argument from improbability."

The "argument from improbability" is the main argument in The God Delusion. The gist of the argument is that God, if there is one, would have to be extremely complex. According to the argument, only a very complex being could create the universe or do the other tasks that God is thought to do (such as answering prayers). However, a highly complex being is very statistically improbable. Therefore (the argument goes) it is very probable that there is no God. What is more, using God to explain the complexity in nature is useless, because the assumption that God exists just adds to the complexity that it supposedly explains. (This is only a brief summary of the argument; the original is in The God Delusion, especially in chapter 4.)

Unfortunately for Dawkins, the argument from improbability is wrong. The argument might appear convincing at first glance, but it turns out to be hopelessly weak once you see the illogical spots. It is like a magic trick: the believability goes away once you notice how the trick is done.

I started to write a post explaining the flaws in the argument, but the post got rather long, so I turned it into a paper. Here is the link to that paper. (The paper is in PDF format.)

Of course, this paper is not a disproof of atheism or a proof of the existence of God. However, it debunks one seemingly "good" reason for being an atheist. If you are going to be an atheist, you will have to find a better reason than the argument from improbability.

posted at: 15:15 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

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

Wed, 31 Dec 2008

The Worst Atheist Argument in the World?

One of the standard arguments for atheism goes like this:

"Religion is responsible for many of the world's evils (the 9/11 attacks, the Inquisition, the Crusades, oppression of women, abuse of children, and so forth). Therefore, the world would be better off if people did not believe in God."

This argument comes up again and again in discussions of atheism. Atheists state the argument in various ways - some short, some long - but all the forms of the argument amount to the same thing.

No matter what the atheists tell you, this is one of the most preposterous arguments in the world.

The main problem with this argument is obvious: not every form of belief in God promotes the evils blamed on religion. The atheist argument only hits the forms of religion that do promote evils like these. The argument might work if aimed at fanaticism, extremism, or cruelly strict and prudish forms of religion. However, it can say nothing about more reasonable forms of belief that do not promote these evils. This fault in the atheist argument has long been known, but some atheists just don't seem to get it.

It is possible to believe in God and also deny most of the dogmas of conventional religion.

You can believe in God and also be against all forms of war. (Pacifist Quakers do this today.)

You can believe in God and also reject the use of force to spread your religion. You might even think God wants people to believe only through a free, uncoerced decision to believe, and not through any kind of force. Some believers think that way.

You can believe in God and also believe in human equality, kindness, and mercy. You can believe in God and support the quest for an end of oppression in the world. Martin Luther King did that.

You can believe in God without believing in religious doctrines that are likely to promote cruelty. You don't have to believe in hell. You don't have to believe that only members of your religion go to heaven. You don't have to believe that God wants us to be afraid. You can believe in God without believing in a cruel God-image derived from the earlier books of the Bible.

It's possible to believe in God, and yet reject all the evils done in the name of religion. It's possible to believe that God disapproves of these evils.

It's possible to believe in a God of love, goodness, beauty and freedom, instead of a God who promotes suicide bombings, sexual repression, and bigotry.

So what happened to the atheist argument? When you think carefully about it, the argument just goes away! It stops being convincing - like a magic trick once you see how it's done.

It is vitally important that we oppose the evils done in the name of religion. However, belief in God is not the real source of those evils - and atheism is not the solution to them.

posted at: 15:31 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

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