See the index.
This series was once called “Richard Dawkins and Naive Atheism.” But now it has morphed into something different, so I renamed it to “Rescuing Dawkins’ Case Against God.” (I also edited the two previous posts a bit.)
I began by saying that Richard Dawkins was philosophically naive to assert that:
To explain [something] by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.1
Of course, in order for an explanation to succeed, you don’t need to have an explanation of the explanation, as I explained here.
But now my readers have convinced me that it’s plausible that Dawkins did not mean to assert that a successful explanation itself must be explained. So let’s be charitable and assume he didn’t intend that – that he said what he said only in the context of a larger argument about complexity.
We could make that the end of it. We could say, “Well, Dawkins, get back to me on the atheism thing when you can show me an argument that at least passes the test of logical validity. Then we’ll have something to talk about.”
But let’s be even more charitable than that. Maybe Dawkins didn’t mean to give his argument in logical form, but instead was only gesturing towards an argument that he wants to make but never does. Let’s try to rescue Dawkins’ argument. What might a successful Dawkins-esque argument from complexity look like?
Reader TaiChi thinks it might be something like this:
Dawkins thinks that God must be complex to do what he does, and he links complexity to improbability – since complexity involves numerous parts which are arranged in a statistically improbable manner. A God would be highly complex, so a God is statistically very improbable, and so God almost certainly doesn’t exist.
Can we put this into logically valid form? Sure. That’s what Erik Wielenberg did in his recent paper “Dawkins’ Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicity.” Here is Wielenberg’s formulation:
(1) If God exists, then God has these two properties: (i) He provides an intelligent-design explanation for all natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) He has no explanation external to Himself.
(2) Anything that provides an intelligent-design explanation for the natural, complex phenomena in the universe is at least as complex as such phenomena.
(3) So, if God exists, then God has these two properties: (i) He is at least as complex as the natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) He has no explanation external to Himself. (from 1 and 2)
(4) It is very improbable that there exists something that (i) is at least as complex as the natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) has no explanation external to itself.
(5) Therefore, it is very improbable that God exists. (from 3 and 4)
This is less rhetorically engaging than Dawkins’ formulation, but at least it is logically valid.
So what can be said of this argument? Is it compelling?
Not really. The problem is that Dawkins’ argument engages the existence of a God that nobody believes in.
For example, consider premise (2). It’s not clear what Dawkins means by saying that God must be at least as complex as the complex universe he supposedly designed. Some writers2 have assumed Dawkins to have meant that something is complex if it has many different physical parts. But if so, then premise (2) becomes:
(2a) Anything that provides an intelligent-design explanation for the natural, complex phenomena in the universe has at least as much physical complexity as such phenomena.
Of course, theists do not assert that God is physical. I suppose Dawkins could support such a premise as (2a) with an extended defense of physicalism, but he provides no such defense, and that discussion would move far beyond the scope of Dawkins’ critique of religion, and of course would make the argument from complexity itself unnecessary.
But perhaps Dawkins has in mind the definition of complexity he arrived at after an extended discussion in The Blind Watchmaker:
…complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.3
But this gets us nowhere. If we plug this definition into Dawkins’ argument, then Dawkins misses his mark. It makes no difference whether God is complex in this sense, for theists do not assert that God acquired “some quality… by random chance alone.” Rather, God is usually thought of as a necessary being, not one that contingently evolved by chance from previous being.
Wielenberg explains this by showing two versions of the God Hypothesis:
(GH1) There exists a contingent, physical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.
(GH2) There exists a necessary, nonphysical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.
Dawkins’ argument might be effective against (GH1), but few theists assert (GH1). Theism asserts something more like (GH2), but Dawkins’ argument does not apply to it.
So far, we have failed to rescue Dawkins’ main argument against the existence of God.