Rescuing Dawkins’ Case Against God (part 4)

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 14, 2010 in General Atheism

See the index.

richard dawkins

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

But let’s be charitable and assume he didn’t intend to claim that a best explanation must itself be explained but that he said what he said only in the context of a larger argument about complexity.

Unfortunately, Dawkins’ central argument in The God Delusion still has the problem of being logically invalid, as shown here.

But let’s be even more charitable. Let’s try to rescue Dawkins’ argument. What might a successful Dawkins-esque argument look like?

Erik Wielenberg thought it might look like this:

(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)

But that doesn’t work.

Luke Barnes recently told me that he interprets Dawkins as saying that “the God hypothesis requires more explanation than it gives.” But this could only lead to the conclusion that we can’t invoke God to explain things, not that God almost certainly doesn’t exist, as Dawkins concludes. So I’m not sure that is what Dawkins is trying to say.

Now, TaiChi has offered a masterful interpretation of Dawkins’ argument that strips out the (perhaps unnecessary) assumptions that make other interpretations of the argument fail, and makes use of Kolmogorov complexity to more carefully insist that God is complex.

I have not had time to examine TaiChi’s argument in detail. This post merely seeks to bring us all up to speed on the options for interpreting Dawkins so far.

What am I missing?

  1. The Blind Watchmaker, page 141. []

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Lukas June 14, 2010 at 8:29 am

Dawkin’s argument is not an argument against God, it’s an argument against the argument that God must exist because otherwise there would be no external cause for the universe.

I think the argument goes like this:

Believers say that the universe must have a cause, thus a god must have caused the universe. By definition, that god is something that doesn’t need an external cause.

Dawkins says: Okay, so you are saying that there is something that exists, and doesn’t need an external cause. So, if you are saying that there is something like this, logically, it must be possible for at least some things to exist without requiring an external cause. But if that is true, then it might as well apply to the universe itself, i.e. you are saying that the universe needs a causeless cause because everything needs a cause, but by that logic, not everything needs a cause and thus we might as well assume that the universe doesn’t need a cause, rather than postulate something in addition to the universe that has the property of not needing a cause.

So it’s not an argument against god, but specifically an argument against the argument that a god necessarily needs to exist because everything needs to have a cause. If a god exists, and that god is by definition causeless, than it follows that *not* everything needs a cause, and the proposition that the universe needs a cause because everything needs a cause is falsified.

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Paul June 14, 2010 at 8:56 am

Cool – I had been wondering if TaiChi had his own website/blog.

In the past I have found TaiChi’s various comments interesting.

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Paul June 14, 2010 at 9:00 am

Oops – I don’t know if TaiChi is male or female. In the previous comment I used the term “his”. Apologies if I guessed wrongly.

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antiplastic June 14, 2010 at 3:11 pm

“But this could only lead to the conclusion that we can’t invoke God to explain things, not that God almost certainly doesn’t exist, as Dawkins concludes.”

The distinction is illusory.

Pop quiz: can anyone think of a single example of a reasonable empirical existence claim that is *not* an attempt to explain observations?

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Ben June 14, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Lukas, you are right that you can attack the special pleading of theists in relation to causation, but Dawkins was not using the argument in that context. He was using it to counter the complexity-from-design argument (which also happens to be special pleading), as is trying to be explained.

The issue with the argument now, it seems, is making the jump from not being able to use the theists special pleading of unexplained complexity (God) to explain the complexity of the universe, to claiming that the unexplained complexity cannot exist..

What I think the crux of the argument comes down to, and what Dawkins possibly intended, is that there is no reason to posit God as a complex but unexplainable explanation for the universe other than we have simply imagined it. Theists can imagine God as the final explanation, but I can imagine a God of gods, who is more complex than God, who can create gods, but to which nothing is more complex. That puts my explanation on par with the theist explanation in that, really, it explains nothing. It’s no more or less logically valid than the theist argument.

This is where the infinite regress comes from: it is possible for the human mind to conjure up explanations for the complexity we witness until we have god-creating gods. Just because theists stop at one doesn’t make it any better explanation than no god nor any better than a million billion regresses. Because “one god, no more, no less” seems to be such an arbitrary decision, I think it’s safe to say that relying on it as an explanation means God probably doesn’t exist.

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Jeffrey June 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm

If you accept the teleological claim, then a monotheistic God almost certainly does not exist.

Teleological claim: if something is complicated, then it was almost certainly designed.

Suppose the teleological claim is true. God is the ultimate Boeing 747. Therefore, if God exists, he was almost certainly designed. Monotheism says God is not designed. Therefore, a monotheistic God almost certainly does not exist.

I think the argument is both sound and at least Dawkins-like.

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Luke Barnes June 14, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Just to clarify … I was basing my summary on this talk by Patrick Richmond:
http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/Multimedia.php?Mode=Add&ItemID=Item_Multimedia_172

which in turn summarises this article of his:

“Richard Dawkins’ Darwinian Objection to Unexplained Complexity in God” Science and Christian Belief Vol 19 No 2 pp99-106 (2007)

I haven’t been able to get a copy of the article, but the talk provides the best summary I’ve heard of what Dawkins is trying to say.

“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean” … It’s seriously annoying that every time someone wants to discuss the central argument of Dawkins book, the argument upon which the whole book hangs, they have to start with: Ok, this argument isn’t logically valid but here’s what I think Dawkins is trying to say.

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antiplastic June 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm

This hangup about logical validity is rather off-base.

In addition to the quiz, there is now a homework assignment. Read through one or both of: MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and this randomly chosen article from the most recent issue of the journal Nature. Search them for “logically valid arguments” and contemplate what a person would sound like bemoaning the “philosophical naivete” of these authors whose conclusions are in dire need of rescuing.

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Martin June 15, 2010 at 3:55 pm

antiplastic,

I don’t have time to go through those now, but I think the point is that people need to make logical sense. Even if its not in the form of an actual syllogism, can you put it into one?

That autism one is way too complex for me to understand, but I assure you that in peer-reviewed science the conclusion has to follow from the premises.

Dawkins conclusion is that God almost certainly does not exist, which is a strong claim, so all the picking apart of his argument is an attempt to find out what his premises are for this.

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antiplastic June 15, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I wouldn’t for a moment dispute that people need to make logical sense, or that their conclusions must follow from their premises.

But what Luke and others are doing, quoting a text verbatim and declaring it invalid, is illicitly inferring from the fact that it does not make Logical Sense, that it does not make logical sense; or from the fact that it does not Follow From the Premises that it does not follow from the premises.

My point is simply that if you attempt to apply this standard of argument to even inarguably correct arguments such as the texts I suggested, you end up saying that almost all human reasoning is logically invalid, since it is Logically Invalid. My unscientific estimate is that somewhere around less than one tenth of one percent of good arguments make Logical Sense, although 100 percent of good arguments make logical sense.

Or: it’s unreasonable to crow about deductive invalidity in this way. It is enough to show that CreatorGod has all the indicators of a paradigm case of a bad explanation to confidently assert She doesn’t exist.

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Martin June 15, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Well, for one thing Dawkins actually states his argument in the form of six premises at the end of that chapter, and the chapter concludes that God almost certainly does not exist.

So right off the bat Dawkins seems to be framing this as a formal argument. But in that form it fails.

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TaiChi June 15, 2010 at 11:57 pm

@Paul
Thanks for your interest. (Male).

@Martin
Well, for one thing Dawkins actually states his argument in the form of six premises at the end of that chapter, and the chapter concludes that God almost certainly does not exist.
So right off the bat Dawkins seems to be framing this as a formal argument. But in that form it fails.

I give no less than seven reasons against taking the six points as Dawkin’s argument, which you can read on my blog.

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Martin June 16, 2010 at 5:38 am

TaiChi,

Whoo! That is some serious in depth analysis! I’m gonna have to download that one to my Kindle in order to read it.

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Torgo June 16, 2010 at 8:03 am

“Luke Barnes recently told me that he interprets Dawkins as saying that “the God hypothesis requires more explanation than it gives.” But this could only lead to the conclusion that we can’t invoke God to explain things, not that God almost certainly doesn’t exist, as Dawkins concludes.”

I’m probably mistaken about this, but as far as scientific explanations go, aren’t these two things equivalent? If God is not a proper scientific explanation, then is this not the same as saying God does not exist in scientific parlance? This is not a metaphysical claim, but an operational one (is that the right term?).

What I have in mind here is a comparison to something like the ether. A scientist likely wouldn’t make the metaphysical claim that the ether does not exist. But on the scientific view of things, it might as well not exist insofar as it is not a useful hypothesis and doesn’t explain anything. We can conclude, scientifically speaking, that the ether does not exist, and similarly, since it is useless as a scientific explanation, we can conclude that God, or an Intelligent Designer, does not exist.

Might this be what Dawkins is getting at?

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Lucian December 23, 2010 at 2:17 pm

To explain [Windows] by invoking Bill Gates as its Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer.

[Not necessarily untrue, but fails to touch upon the main point in question].

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