Category Archives: Book Club

Video

The Hidden Benefits of Procrastination

“My brain has atrophied. I think I am stupider today then before I started reading this drivel.”

Such is a representative comment from the Men On Books club as we labored through The God Delusion. (My reviews start here.) Probably the most pointed summation of this book comes from Dr. Edward Feser in his book The Last Supersition. He references a book titled Philosophy for Dummies, and suggests that if a more dumbed down version of this book should ever need to be written, it could be titled Philosophy for Dawkins.

I have been avoiding writing a further review of this book, because I dread slogging through the drivel a second time. My procrastination has rewarded me with the finding of this bit of video gold:

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Why There Almost Certainly Is No God

Well, sort of. Chapter 4 of “The God Delusion”

By FRATER BOVIOUS


"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." - Maslow, 1966

“I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” – Abraham Kaplan

(CARROLLTON, TX – Cradle of Civilization) The above is one version of a quote that reportedly originated in a speech given by Professor of Philosophy at UCLA, Abraham Kaplan. The occasion was a banquet speech given at conference of the American Educational Research Association. It was reported on in the Journal of Medical Education in June of 1962; I provide a quote from that report below:

The highlight of the 3-day meeting, however, was to be found in Kaplan’s comment on the choice of methods for research. He urged that scientists exercise good judgment in the selection of appropriate methods for their research. Because certain methods happen to be handy, or a given individual has been trained to use a specific method, is no assurance that the method is appropriate for all problems. He cited Kaplan’s Law of the Instrument: “Give a boy a hammer and everything he meets has to be pounded.”

I start with this because it is evident from The God Delusion that Richard Dawkins has a school girl crush on Natural Selection. Natural Selection is the be-all and end-all for Dawkins, and he imbues it with powers and abilities that transcend biology and enter into, well, everything. He sees the hand of Natural Selection, or some non-biological analog of it, literally everywhere.

The second thing I want to point out is a consequence of how his love affair with Natural Selection, leads him into confirmation bias, resulting in a particular misquote that bears some serious scrutiny as it speaks to his willingness to accept an outrageous quote as factual, when it is instead an egregious example of “quote mining”.

We see quote mining all the time in advertisements for movies, where a sentence is taken completely out of context from a scathing review of a movie, and used as if it was praise from a movie reviewer. Here is an example.

Live Free or Die Hard. Blurb: Jack Mathews, New York Daily News: “Hysterically…entertaining.” Actual written line: “The action in this fast-paced, hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining film is as realistic as a Road Runner cartoon.”

Note the ellipses in the above, between “hysterically” and “entertaining.” At least they had the integrity to let on that the quote was edited.

However, in Chapter 4 of The God Delusion, in a section titled The Worship of Gaps Dawkins introduces, in his words, an imaginary “intelligent design theorist” into whose mouth he puts all manner of nonsense, such as “if you don’t understand how something works, never mind: just give up and say God did it.” (p 159.)

This is followed by the below quote, with no ellipses:

St Augustine said it quite openly: ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.’ (quoted in Freeman 2002) from (p 159.)

It’s pretty powerful statement, right? He describes an imaginary person saying something idiotic, then backs it up with a Doctor of the Church.

Now, I’ve actually read some St. Augustine, and studied his thought a bit. And that quote simply smelled bad. So, I did some checking. In approximately 3 seconds, I found this post on Dawkins, and he referred this post with a link to the actual text. What Augustine actually wrote is in The Confessions, Chapter X.

Allow me to summarize. First, between the somewhat inaccurately quoted “fraught with danger” and the also inaccurately quoted “this is the disease of curiosity” there are 447 words missing.

Quote mining is sometimes called “contextomy”, meaning, like with an appendectomy, where an appendix has been cut out, that in quote mining, the context has been cut out. Suffice to say, excising approximately 50 sentences effectively removes the context. As one of the links I provided above notes at the end of his post, the dishonesty in this misquote is Freeman’s, the intellectual laziness and shoddy scholarship is Dawkins. But, as a reminder, Dawkins has canonized shoddy scholarship. Remember, he needn’t read or understand the arguments in opposition to his, since, “nanny nanny boo bobby.” Ok, that’s my translation of him saying he needn’t read tracts on Leprechauns to refute the existence of same, therefore, he needn’t actually be conversant with, say, Augustine, to refute what he has to say.

As to what Augustine is saying, he is saying that idle curiosity is bad for the same reason that a steady diet of Cheetos is bad. He is not saying that studying nature is bad anymore than eating healthy food is bad. But don’t take my word for it. Read The Confessions of St. Augustine. It is a free Kindle download from Amazon.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Suffice to say, this bit of fact checking has me looking at everything that Dawkins says about anything with a raised eyebrow. Can we  trust his scholarship? Can we trust his conclusions? More to the point, is he addressing actual arguments, or are they all the type of argument with which he introduced his Augustine misquote? That is to say, how many times will we see him present for our consideration an imagined apologist for God, have that person say things that no one says, and then tie it in with a misrepresentation of the position of someone that does exist?

I have no idea. But, let’s briefly look at why there is almost certainly no God.

This entire chapter is a pitting of Intelligent Design (ID) against Natural Selection. Now, a problem here, for me, is simply this. I am not an ID guy. I don’t find the argument compelling, I almost see it as special pleading. And, Dawkins, being a materialist, isn’t going to see anywhere an argument regarding the supernatural that is immaterial, and he is clearly (blissfully?) unaware (based on his laughable treatment of Aquinas) of the concept of simplicity as it would apply to an immaterial All. Instead, he sees any hope of a defensible argument of God being one that deals with a highly complex being.

Clearly we have terminology issues. But this is why, on page 151, Dawkins concludes that the idea of Irreducible Complexity, while it would wreck Natural Selection, would also necessarily wreck God, since God is necessarily irreducibly complex. Here, look at this paragraph:

In any case, even though genuinely irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin’s theory, if it were ever found, who is to say that it wouldn’t wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory, for, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very very complex and presumably irreducibly so!

Because Dawkins is a materialist he simply can’t or won’t see this idea: God, being immaterial is necessarily simple. For God to be complex, even irreducibly complex, would require that God be material. It would also require that God be made by an Intelligent Designer, or perhaps, Natural Selection. Complexity requires matter, discrete matter, parts, if you will, working together in some way. To be immaterial is to be simple. No parts. This is not part of Dawkins’s God Hypothesis, and so it doesn’t factor in to any of his arguments. And it gives rise to the snarky, “Oh yeah, so who made God? In your face Bozo!” retorts that are thought to be so, umm, smart?

Here is another misunderstanding (or misrepresentation, it is hard to know which) regarding the concept of mystery. “Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious” (p 152) meaning the earlier noted idea that if we don’t understand it, just say God did it. Like that was ever an actual argument.

Now, there may be some folks that hold that position. But, it isn’t an authentic position. Mystery is the subject of knowledge. Mystery refers to a reality so large, and so intelligible (yes, intelligible), that we will never exhaust it, though there is no theoretical end to how much we can understand. Let that sink in a bit.

So, lets look at the sections in this chapter, keeping all of the above in mind.

In the section titled Irreducible Complexity, he gives us the parable of Mount Improbable. This is an argument about probabilities, the linchpin of the whole chapter, hence the title of the chapter. Another way of saying “Why there almost certainly is no God” is “Why there is probably no God.” So, he’s taking a scientific approach. Based on probability. Like his approach, based on probability, where he concluded that “very probably” advanced alien civilizations exist (p. 98.)

So, Mount Improbable is this mountain with a sheer cliff face on one side, that is all but insurmountable. The ID folks say, “You just can’t get from the floor of the valley up that sheer wall in one leap. Therefore Intelligent Design.” (Insert caveat regarding taking anything Dawkins represents as an argument from his opposition being at least questionable in its accuracy, viz. Augustine misquote above.) Anyway, natural selection doesn’t climb the sheer face. See, on the other side of the mountain, which ID proponents are too stupid to see, is a gently sloping path along which Dawkins invites us to wend our leisurely way up the mountain to the summit, be it an eye, or wing, or some other supposedly irreducibly complex thing. We have replaced a virtual impossibility with a series of only mildly improbable changes brought on by natural selection. No intelligent design necessary.

The section on irreducible complexity ends with the quote from p. 151 reproduced above. This then led into The Worship Of Gaps, which includes the astonishing misquote of Augustine.

He gives an interesting example of a Penn and Teller magic trick where they apparently shoot each other, and each catches the bullet in their teeth. He says that, rather than think, “A miracle!” we should think, “Wow, they are world class illusionists, and I just can’t figure it out.” This he says should be the proper way we respond to apparent irreducible complexity. I don’t think he intended it this way, but he kind of said we should shout “Wonder workers!” instead of “Miracle workers!” I would hope what he really meant was “We should admire their skill and ask ourselves, ‘How did they do it?'”

He then spends most of the rest of this section on irreducible complexity and intelligent design and why natural selection solves every problem he can think to throw at it. There is also a lot of talk about consciousness raising. We should embrace natural selection because it will open our minds to heretofore unimaginable vistas of rationality.

How this demonstrates why there is almost certainly no God is unclear to me. So far he has mounted an argument against ID, supposing it to be the strongest argument for the existence of God, or at least that is my assumption. So, if you take out the strongest argument, well, you’ve taken out the strongest argument. You have failed to demonstrate why probability precludes God.

So, then we go to the section titled Anthropic Principle: Planetary Version. Here he gets at a more interesting question. Set aside all the development of life, how did life begin? Fasten your seat-belts.

He starts here:

The root of evolution in non-biological chemistry somehow seems to present a bigger gap than any particular transition during subsequent evolution. And in one sense it is a bigger gap. That one sense is quite specific, and it offers no comfort to the religious apologist. The origin of life only had to happen once. We therefore can allow it to have been an extremely improbable event, many orders of magnitude more improbable than most people realize, as I shall show (p 162).

Dawkins then goes into the anthropic principle. I will paraphrase briefly. It seems that things are incredibly fine-tuned, even at the atomic level, such that even a slight variance would preclude the laws of nature as we know them today, and conceivably, life, or even existence, itself. In other words, things have to be just like they are in order for us to exist. Well, that just kind of seems self-evident to me. Yes it is true that things have to be just like they are for us to exist. But my own almost gut response to the question, “What would happen if something were different?” is:

  1. If things were different but we still existed, then we would be correspondingly different. Maybe silicon based instead of carbon based, for example. But would I still be me? How can I know? Things are as they are and we cannot test differences in say, how the nuclear forces work at the atomic level. Does the question have any meaning?
  2. Or, we wouldn’t exist at all, and so we wouldn’t be asking about it.

I have always been basically uninterested in the argument. Now, Dawkins believes that the anthropic principle works against ID, since he sees it as an alternative theory. I guess that depends. I can see an ID supporter saying, “It had to be designed this way” and maybe throwing in irreducible complexity to boot as support. Nevertheless, Dawkins has simply decided that ID folks can’t use the anthropic principle, I guess because it is too scientific and they’re just not allowed. Because, you see, the anthropic approach “is very different, and it has a faintly Darwinian feel” (p 163.)

He then intends to show why they are mutually exclusive. He provides two views, using the so-called Goldilocks Zone (This orbit is too far out, this orbit is too close in, but this orbit is just right) as an example. ID says that God made the universe and put the earth in the Goldilocks Zone so that life could be supported. The anthropic principle says, no, no design involved, that’s just how it worked out, because, statistics.

He then actually says, on page 165, “Scientists invoke the magic of large numbers.” He picks one in a billion as the chance that life arises on a given planet in the Goldilocks Zone, and states that there are a billion billion planets in the Goldilocks Zone. He concludes that “If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefyingly improbably event would still happen on a billion planets.”

He then states that his statistical argument “completely demolishes” any suggestion that we should postulate design to fill the gap (p 166.)

Alrighty then.

As I have already noted, I am not an ID guy, but, Dawkins’s statistical argument is a farce because he just can’t look at someone and say, “you can’t use this as part of your design argument.” Of course they can use the anthropic principle as part of an ID argument. He has not demonstrated that the anthropic principle is simply off limits for ID theorists. What a stupid conclusion.

Here is the richest part of his scientific and statistical tour de force regarding the anthropic principle:

The origin of life, by contrast, lies outside the reach of that crane (he refers to Darwinian Evolution as a “crane” that lifts our consciences), because natural selection cannot proceed without it.

Here I agree, natural selection presumes life, it does not explain why there is any life. But, wait, there’s more:

Here the anthropic principle comes into its own. We can deal with the unique origin of life by postulating a very large number of planetary opportunities. Once that initial stroke of luck has been granted – and the anthropic principle most decisively grants it to us – natural selection takes over: and natural selection is emphatically not a matter of luck (p 168.)

The anthropic principle decisively grants us luck.

A moment of reverential awe may be inserted here. May I suggest we all listen to this before we continue?

Another stupid conclusion near the end of this section: “…design certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is ultimately not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger questions that it answers…”

So, all you designers out there, as you work on things, and build models, and then adjust your design to account for heretofore unknown variables revealed by your models, just remember, all those design changes made to make your project perform as you have envisioned, well, that’s not cumulative.

So, it goes on an on. His chapter on The Anthropic Principle: Cosmological Version is especially rich. He says things like

A God capable  of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers (Martin Rees, in a book titled “Just Six Numbers”, has come up with six fundamental constants required for life as we know it – FB) would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that’s very improbable indeed. This is exactly the premise of the whole discussion at hand.

This appears to be Dawkins’s explanation as to why there almost certainly is not God. Because God is at least as improbable as the fine tuning necessary to have life in the first place.

What?

Dawkins explanation of why the universe is the way it is, is much more scientific. It involves the multi-verse. Seriously, see page 173. The multi-verse. In the multi-verse, those universes with the six numbers dialed to life will… will… will mean that we are in one of them.

Lastly, on page 177, Dawkins addresses the idea of a simple God. He says that someone named Swinburne asserts, “without justification” that God is a single substance. Dawkins simply asserts on page 178 that a God capable of controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple.

Therefore, almost certainly, no God.

That’s his argument. God is too complicated to have been evolved, therefore, he probably does not exist. That’s the summation. It is based on his God Hypothesis, which I noted does not include the attribute of being immaterial, and then works from there. The rest of the book is about why, since God probably does not exist, we should dispense with religion.

Dawkins whole chapter on the probability of God amounts to mere opinion. He prefers luck.

If you find his arguments compelling, let me know.

FB

The Arguments for God’s Existence

As Caricatured By Dawkins

By FRATER BOVIOUS


Misrepresentations is not Refutation

Misrepresentation is not Refutation

(CARROLLTON – TX, Cradle of Civilization) In our most recent meeting, the members of the obscure book club, Men On Books (MOB, or HDL–I’m still trying to figure out how to render Men On Books properly in Latin. If the Latin words do make the acronym, HDL, it is important to note that we are the good cholesterol), met to discuss Chapters 3 and 4 of The God Delusion. (You can start at the beginning of this series of posts here.) Our hopes of finding something to sink our teeth into were dashed by these two chapters and we spent a few minutes discussing if we should even bother reading the rest of the book, given the continuing failure to actually make a cogent argument against the existence of God.

In the end we decided to continue on, if for no reason than to be able to respond in the affirmative if ever asked, “Have you even read it?” But we were left wondering, “Why is this so bad? Why do people think it ‘fine literature’?”

As I was writing this and rereading what I was writing, and continuing to wonder why we found it so bad, and why others found it so good, I think I finally figured it out. Dawkins is a materialist. This is as opposed to being an idealist or a realist. The linked article discusses both materialism and idealism and I offer this short excerpt for those not familiar and who may be curious:

Despite the large number of philosophical schools and subtle nuances between many,[1][2][3]all philosophies are said to fall into two primary categories, which are defined in contrast to each other: Idealism, and materialism.[a] The basic proposition of these two categories pertains to the nature of reality, and the primary distinction between them is the way they answer two fundamental questions: “what does reality consist of and how does it originate?” To idealists, spirit or mind is primary, and created matter secondary. To materialists, matter is primary and mind or spirit is secondary, a product of matter acting upon matter.[3]

What MOB and Dawkins have then is a fundamental difference in world view.

I and my fellow MOB club members are realists, a third option not mentioned in the above quote, but briefly discussed in the linked article. We are neither materialists nor idealists. These are philosophical positions, not theological positions. The God Delusion is therefore not actually attacking a theology, it is attacking a philosophy, but Dawkins seems unaware of this difference, at least as presented in the first four chapters.

What this further means is that we would need a whole series of posts tracing the philosophical roots of these different world views, and attempting to show where we believe Dawkins is wrong and why we think materialism is untenable. (Since he hasn’t really addressed idealism neither will I.) I have to wonder how many following along here would be interested in pursuing such a discussion. But the intent in this examination of The God Delusion isn’t to promote one world view over another, it is to evaluate the arguments that Dawkins has for asserting that there is no God. However, the fact that we have different world views means that most of what will follow regarding The God Delusion will derive from the fact that in our opinion his God Hypothesis just isn’t a hypothesis shared by most Christians. His God Hypothesis is missing something fundamental:

…there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

What is missing? The word ‘immaterial’.

Because Dawkins is a materialist, he will fundamentally (and necessarily) miss the argument being made by theologians coming from a world view that admits of both the material and the immaterial–he simply won’t see the actual argument or will misunderstand it because the premise is either alien to him, or has been rejected by him. Sadly, this means his presentation of many of the theological arguments are simply inaccurate caricatures.

He has missed possibly the most fundamental aspect of God as understood by most who believe in such a being – the being is immaterial. Consequently, the idea, for example, of God being simple rather than complex makes no sense to Dawkins, as, being a materialist, higher order functioning only comes with complexity.

So, with that caveat, let’s run through his treatment of the arguments. He starts with Aquinas and his “five proofs”. He lumps the first three together and dispenses with them by saying that it is an unwarranted assumption that God is immune to the regress, and besides “Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name… there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God…” (p 101). This is a very nearly inarticulate presentation of Aquinas’s first three ways.

I will just briefly comment on his dismissal of the First Way. Those who have been following along in this series of posts won’t be shocked to learn that Dawkins simply misrepresents the argument from the first sentence:

1. The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. (p 100)

What Aquinas actually said:

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act.

This does require some unpacking and I am going to be overly brief. The first thing to note is that by “move” is meant “change”. The second thing to note is that this change is from potential to act. The third thing to note, from Aquinas’s conclusion, is that this is more about causality than it is about infinite regress:

But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand.

Dawkins focuses on the infinite regress, rather than the actual argument concerning essentially ordered causation. I think he misunderstands. I think he believes that this argument concerns temporally ordered causation. But, it does not. Briefly, and incompletely, think about the difference like this:

  • For temporally ordered causation picture a line of dominoes. The first domino (call it the prime mover) falls and hits the next, and so on. After the first domino falls, it (the prime mover) can be removed from the scene, and the line of dominoes will continue to fall. The prime mover started a chain of events, but now is unnecessary to the continuation of the chain of events.
  • For essentially ordered causation, think hand moving a staff which is moving a brick. Take the hand away, and the brick stops moving, even if the staff and brick are still there. In this case, the hand is the prime mover. Take away the prime mover and the motion ends. The prime mover is essential to the movement (or change) and once it is gone, so is the change. In this case, prime does not refer to first in a temporal ordering. Prime mover in this case speaks to something that is essentially bound up, right here, right now, with a given change (or movement) from potential to actual.

Bear in mind that the Five Ways given by Aquinas are summaries, and presume a certain metaphysics that his students would have been taught prior to engaging in theology. They would have understood the concepts of act and potential and what is involved in moving something from potential to act.

In Dawkins’ caricature of The Unmoved Mover he appears innocent of any understanding regarding act and potency as understood by Aquinas (or his students). So, for him to say that the first three ways all have to do with a regress from which the only way to escape is to invoke God is simply not accurate. In essentially ordered change, the existence of pure act, that is, something that is in no way potential, is required. If something is in no way potential, but is actuality itself, then it cannot be put into motion by some other outside principle. Hence the term, unmoved mover.

Simply, Dawkins does not understand the argument, and his dismissal of it is silly.

Speaking of silly, he then asserts that logicians have noticed that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. I have to assume his presentation of what “logicians” say is as off the mark as his presentation of what Aquinas says, otherwise, he should find some new logicians. But here is what “they” say from page 101:

If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.

He calls this a witty little paradox. The problem is it is not a paradox as the word is commonly used, i.e., something unexpected or ironic, yet true. Rather it is a logical paradox in that it is an invalid argument and is therefore nonsense. The value of such a paradox is that it can make clear where definitions thought to be rigorous are not. In cases of an apparent paradox, where there appears to be a contradiction, but the statement is nevertheless true, the apparent paradox can generally be resolved with the proper frame of reference. But this “witty little paradox” isn’t in touch with reality. It is simply a content-less statement masquerading as having meaning.

If the above is actually what “logicians” say, then Dawkins is overly impressed by his logicians. Under what possible scenario would an all-knowing, all-powerful being ever want or need to change his mind? The answer is “no possible scenario.” If a being is all-knowing, by definition, he knows all. To change his mind, among other things, would indicate that this faux omniscient being became aware of something of which he was previously unaware. Since that cannot happen with an actual all-knowing being, the all-powerful part is irrelevant. For a being to change his mind does not require it be all-powerful. Rather, it requires the being to not be all-knowing.

An all-knowing being would never need to change his mind. Saying he can’t change his mind because he never would have a need to, isn’t even correct. It isn’t that he can’t– it’s not about “can” or “can’t”–it is that he will never need to change his mind. If you are all-knowing and all-powerful then you have already set everything up as it should be and a complete lack of any need to alter anything you have set up is a demonstration of power, not weakness. But Dawkins thinks this paradox is clever. What it has to do with Aquinas’s proofs is not stated. I see it as the equivalent of Dawkins taking another admiring selfie in the bathroom mirror. He’s just so pleased with himself that he has to have digressions that serve only to further his intellectual preening.

I shake my head in wonderment.

After taking about three pages to dismiss Aquinas, he takes roughly six pages to muddle around Anselm’s Ontological Proof. Now, since I personally do not understand Anselm’s argument, I have nothing I can say for or against Dawkins’ presentation or refutation of it.

Next we have the Argument from Beauty. Dawkins basically says, things are beautiful and they don’t need God to be so. Since he doesn’t have much else to say on the matter, he then takes a few stabs at the Catholic Church and how it brutalized artists in the middle ages and forced art out of them. Which has nothing to do with the argument from beauty. What Dawkins does here is basically say that “the argument from beauty says beauty indicates there is a God. I say it doesn’t. I win.”

Next we have the Argument from Personal Experience. Dawkins response to this argument is that you probably hallucinated or at least you are just seeing what you want to see, and anyway, don’t expect your belief to be compelling evidence. Now, I’ve never in my studies run across the Proof from Personal Experience, so all I can say to this particular section is “so what?” as I don’t really recognize it as a general argument for the existence of God anyway.

Next we have the Argument from Admired Religious Scientists. Basically in this section he asserts that there aren’t that many believing scientists, and that they are all suspect anyway. For example, Mendel, an Augustinian Monk, was from the 19th century and knew that being a monk was the easiest route to time for studies. Being a monk was “the equivalent of a research grant” (p 125). He finishes by quoting from studies that indicate that smart people are atheists and dumb people are religious. Oh, by the way, I’ve never run across the “argument from admired religious scientists.” He presents it as if serious theologians base their arguments on “Newton was religious.” So, if God is good enough for Newton, He should be good enough for you and me. No one makes such a silly argument, so I think the whole purpose of this section was just to point out that religious people are stupid and that real scientists today are atheists, and if we could bring all the supposedly religious scientists forward into our enlightened age, they would come out of the closet and be atheists also. Yawn.

Then we have Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager is not an argument for the existence of God. It is an argument regarding belief in God. Not the same thing. Not worth discussing further.

I’ve never heard of the Bayesian argument, but have no reason to think that Dawkins’s treatment of it is any more accurate than his treatment of Aquinas. I really think he just added it in because it involves probability, and probability is the basis of Chapter 4, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.”

So, we’ll talk about that chapter, and Dawkins’ school girl crush on Natural Selection, in the next post.

The God Hypothesis

Chapter 2 of the God Delusion – Building a Case

By FRATER BOVIOUS


building a case

“And then, see, once we have put it together, we’ll know exactly how to take it apart!”

(CARROLLTON – TX, Cradle of Civilization) (See First Post in this series) In Chapter 2, Dawkins begins by helpfully setting aside any need to address the God of the Old Testament because, “It is unfair to attack such an easy target” (p 51). As noted earlier, one can assume Dawkins has not read the entire Old Testament, and so of course it would be an easy target. It would be easy for me to explain how I would have prevented WWI by preventing the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, especially easy since I don’t know anything about it and can proceed with my own assumptions and opinions, unencumbered by reality.

But, Dawkins does have a stated reason for dispensing with the God of the Old Testament, and actually every religion’s understanding of God: he is going to attack “The God Hypothesis.” I am sympathetic to this effort to some degree because it is pragmatic–he doesn’t want to get lost in the weeds over the various understandings of God as professed by the various religions. It would take multiple books to address each particular variant. No, he wants to get at the root, and proposes his God Hypothesis as essentially general enough to warrant lumping all understanding of God under this Grand Unifying Hypothesis. It is a valid approach.

He states his hypothesis as:

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

He advocates, instead, an alternative view:

any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. (Both quotes from p 52.)

While I don’t accept his stated God Hypothesis as representative of my understanding of God, his alternative nevertheless omits the most critical issue that his God Hypothesis addresses, namely the origin of the universe. I think I am right to say that his alternative view presupposes an existing universe. And if there is nothing before or outside this existing universe, then his alternative, as becomes clear, presupposes the absence of the supernatural.

But, I also think that his carefully worded alternative hypothesis is purpose built to evolve into what will be his actual target, the argument for the existence of God from the Intelligent Design standpoint. He saves that for chapter 4 and so will I. I will simply note here that it is sensible for him to focus on the argument for which his career provides the greatest amount of ammunition.

But before focusing almost exclusively on Intelligent Design in that chapter, he spends some time in Chapter 2 in a section titled Polytheism which section ends with his plainly stated intent:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p 57, emphasis mine.)

Please remember this thought, because it is easy to forget. Dawkins is attacking the supernatural. It is easy to lose sight of that, however. Why? Because in Chapter 2, nothing he says is an argument against the supernatural. In all cases it is an argument against religion. Whatever the merit of his attacks on religion, they are not attacks on the supernatural.

I am reminded of an article by Peggy Noonan titled Low Information Leadership. She is talking about Obama’s advisers, and notes something that can be applied to Dawkins’s presentation of religion:

From what I have seen the administration is full of young people who’ve seen the movie but not read the book. They act bright, they know the reference, they’re credentialed. But they’ve only seen the movie about, say, the Cuban missile crisis, and then they get into a foreign-policy question and they’re seeing movies in their heads. They haven’t read the histories, the texts, which carry more information, more texture, data and subtlety, and different points of view. (http://blogs.wsj.com/peggynoonan/2013/12/03/low-information-leadership/

Remember, Dawkins explicitly states he is not attacking any particular version of God on p 57, but rather the supernatural. But, he then immediately states on pp 58-59 that all three of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are indistinguishable, for his purposes, and so he will simply focus on Christianity, since that “is the version with which I happen to be most familiar” (p 58). His familiarity is of the ‘seen the movie but not read the book’ variety, since, as pointed out before, he does not need to read Pastafarianism.

Dawkins, however, spends most of the chapter discussing religion and Little Green Men, not the Christian God or the supernatural. (I don’t view God and the particular religious expression of belief in God, as being the same thing.)

He does discuss secularism and the founding fathers of America, agnosticism, 7 points along the spectrum from theist to atheist, tells us Bertrand Russell’s parable of the celestial teapot, quotes from his own books, regales us with anecdotes pitting Science against the Stupid, brings up the Flying Spaghetti Monster again, explains that theology has nothing to say about the real world, and, well you get the picture. All of these are assertions, there is no demonstration. For example, the celestial teapot parable, where there is proposed a teapot out in space that you can’t see, but which is asserted to exist, is more about whether or not you can prove the existence of God (or hypothetical teapots), than it is about disproving anything, including celestial teapots.

He does one thing, and it becomes habitual as the book progresses. Both with Stephen Jay Gould and Pope St. John Paul II, he says they can’t mean what they wrote. Dawkins provides a quote from Michael Ruse in which Ruse specifically says that Dawkins calls the Pope a hypocrite for endorsing Darwinism. I can only assume that Dawkins affirms this statement by his inclusion of the quote (p 92). It is as if Evolutionists belong to an elite club, and Popes and the like can’t be allowed in because ‘we don’t allow your kind in here.’

But my real point is this: When Dawkins doesn’t like what someone says, but he can’t safely argue against what they actually said (why would he argue against the Pope endorsing Darwinism?), he simply says they can’t have meant what they said. He would much rather argue against the opinion he wants them to have, and he will simply assert they have that opinion against even the evidence of their own published statements. It’s difficult to wipe the smug off after reading the book for too long.

The only time he approaches an argument against the supernatural is when he brings up the great prayer experiment. Basically, if that experiment proved anything, it proved that prayer does not ‘work.’ But it did not demonstrate that there is no supernatural. I think that Dawkins cannot really explain why he thinks there is no supernatural because for him it is self-evident. He simply accepts it a priori, and goes on from there with all manner of Science. His approach is the time-honored, “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bull-shit.”

Which will win you points with the frat-boys that you practice religion baiting with, but regardless fails to demonstrate. Dawkins does one lengthy attempt to demonstrate the power of science in refuting… something. He starts by talking about agnosticism, and whether or not that is a valid position. Basically, he thinks it is not, because, as he will demonstrate in Chapter 4, the probability that there is no God is so high that you can set aside agnosticism and embrace atheism. What follows is a tour de force in, well, you decide.

Contra agnosticism, Dawkins brings up the Drake Equation, the attempt by collecting probabilities to estimate the likelihood of advanced civilizations existing elsewhere in the universe. He is trying to make a point about agnosticism. I will bullet point his argument, and I want you to see the fascinating conclusion:

  1. There are seven components to the Drake Equation which must be multiplied together
  2. Examples are the number of stars, the number of Earth-like planets per star and “the probability of this, that and the other” which he does not list because they are all unknown, or estimated with “enormous margins for error”
  3. The result “has such colossal error bars that agnosticism seems a very reasonable… stance”
  4. We now have direct evidence of many ‘solar systems’ and as of the printing of this book we know of about 170 Jupiter sized planets
  5. This means one piece of the Drake equation has been quantized a bit, which Dawkins says permits a significant, if moderate (?) easing of our agnosticism
  6. Dawkins then spends some time listing what we might try to look for that would provide signs of the existence of intelligent life elsewhere with a nod to Sagan’s novel Contact
  7. He then explains that if we saw such evidence, given the distances involved, we would be seeing signs of life that had no doubt evolved way beyond the level of scientific achievement that we have currently achieved.
  8. His conclusion (this is a quote from p 98): “Whether we ever get to know about them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.”  (Emphasis mine.)

I laughed out loud. Go back and read that progression again. Where did the agnosticism go? It was replaced by blind faith. In Little Green Men.

I have to digress a bit. Since we are talking about probabilities, and since probabilities are based on large statistical samples, it depends on if you are a ‘glass half empty’ or ‘glass half full’ kind of person as to whether or not finding 170 planets helps or hurts your position on life on other planets. See, before, we knew of 9 (or 8 depending on the definition of the moment) planets, of which we knew for sure life existed on one. So, you could say for example, the chance for intelligent life on a planet is one in 9. But now we know of 170 planets, and we have no evidence of advanced civilization on those planets, so our observed stats are now one in 179. Is that better or worse odds than when we started? Should I be more or less agnostic? The real answer to that, of course, is that we simply don’t have a large enough sample to draw any conclusions at this time. But, that does not stop Dawkins, as he has clearly left agnosticism behind: “there are very probably alien civilizations…”  (p 98).

His closing paragraph of this chapter is very nearly incoherent, and so I will simply state, no demonstration against the supernatural is to be found in this chapter. The HDL, aka Men On Books, will meet this Thursday to discuss Chapters 3 and 4. (Next: The Arguments for God’s Existence)

FB

Asking the Wrong Question

Chapter 1 of “The God Delusion”

By FRATER BOVIOUS


Presumption is not demonstration.

Presumption is not demonstration.

(CARROLLTON – TX, Cradle of Civilization) This past Thursday, January 15, the members of the obscure book club Men on Books met to discuss the first two chapters of Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion. (The preface is commented on here.)

Fortunately we had whiskey and cigars on hand.

It is difficult to express the disappointment felt by the members in their reading of these first two chapters. (Chapter Two will be discussed in a follow-up post.) We assumed, based on the press surrounding this book, that we would be reading a very well articulated argument against the belief in God. We were left wondering if we were reading the same book the reviewers had so lavishly praised.

We now look forward to the next two chapters in hopes of finding the well articulated arguments that failed to make an appearance in the first two chapters.

Meanwhile, the first chapter of the book is titled, A Deeply Religious Non-Believer. He provides a quote from Einstein using that terminology which I am assuming is the source of the title. By this title, and the content of the the chapter, I take this to mean that Dawkins is passionate about his Atheism, and I at least got the impression that his main reason for his deeply religious non-belief is his deeply religious belief in evolution. He acknowledges at least being religious regarding Nature, in terms of his defined Einsteinian religion, but rightly concludes that calling himself religious would be misleading (p 40 – all page references are to the paperback edition).

He spends much of this chapter explaining the different ideas to which the word “God” is attached, and at least he did manage to make one thing clear. By “God” he is very specifically referring to “the supernatural” and not to any concept of  a god that is essentially explainable in terms of Nature. So, he goes to great lengths to make sure the reader understands that when Einstein or Hawking use the word “God” they aren’t referring to anything supernatural, they are instead referring to Nature, and all the natural workings thereof. Well and good. Defining one’s terms is always a good starting point.

But in this process we also learn that all the smart, honest people believe in science, evolution, and nature, and that the religious mind is weak (p 38).

In the chapter he also includes a quote from Carl Sagan which he ascribes to Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot, and in which Sagan asks a fundamentally wrong question, and then provides a silly response supposedly representative of his target:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ (pp 32-33)

What is fundamentally wrong with the question? It is dishonest and is a text book straw man argument. In any intellectually honest scientific inquiry the first questions should be, “What do I know is true?”and “Are all the assumptions I bring to this inquiry valid?”

A non-agendized version of this question would be, “Is it the case that most of the major religions of the world have a belief in a small god and that they want to keep their small god? Is it true that the major religions of the world are simply opposed to science and the scientific method?” An intellectually honest attempt to give a representative answer would involve researching their writings and talking to their authorized representatives to at least have a passing familiarity with their actual position. However, we have already learned that Dawkins feels no need to do so as mentioned in a previous post here.

In order to introduce some semblance of a scientific approach to Sagan’s silly question and answer I would have to ask Dawkins, “Is it true that the major religions of the world reject science? That they don’t find scientific knowledge useful? That the scientific view of the Universe is much more majestic and subtle than their prophets said? That they all simply concluded, ‘I like my god small and manageable?” To which Dawkins should have to respond, “I don’t know, since I don’t read Pastafarianism.” Except I rather expect he would simply assert, “Yes, that’s all self-evident.”

The only religion I know anything about is Catholicism, so I will only speak to what I know. Is Catholicism one of these major religions that believes “My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way”? That rejects science and the scientific method? I am just going to state “No, in my studies no one has ever put forth any such idea, in fact, quite the opposite. In fact, the Catholic Church celebrates advance of human understanding, and recognizes scientific inquiry as a critical human activity.” What he would have to say about that I will discuss in the post on Chapter 2. I will give you a hint though. It won’t involve him demonstrating a damn thing.

The presumptive arrogance of the above quote from Sagan, however, is most certainly not an argument for or against anything. It is simply a dismissal, without warrant, of “major religions” as being small-minded. Without warrant. And it says nothing about the supernatural, which is Dawkins’ stated target. So why does Dawkins include it? I don’t know. I do know he believes Scientists are smart and Religionists have weak minds. I can only presume that the intent of this chapter is to plant the idea that religious belief is idiotic so that he doesn’t have to actually address religious belief in the rest of the book except to wink and say, “Typical religious ‘thought'”.

I would like to close this article by looking at Dawkins’ concerns over the privileging of religion. There is an example in the chapter, in support of the idea that religion gets a free pass in the US, regarding a 12 year old boy (James Nixon) wearing a T-Shirt that was opposed to Homosexuality, Islam, and Abortion. Dawkins spends time showing that the kid won the right to wear the shirt through the courts. Dawkins objected to the reason he won the right:

The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it [their lawsuit] on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn’t. Instead, the Nixon’s lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. (p 45)

Just for proper reference, here is the text of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

You will note that Dawkins’ complaint, simplified, is that Nixon’s lawyers had the audacity to use the First Amendment, instead of the more “conscionable” use of the First Amendment. He also caricatures this as a case of legalized discrimination against homosexuals disguised as a case in defense of freedom of religion. Note, he is equating the wearing of a t-shirt (now solely focused on the “homosexuality is a sin” part) as “discrimination”, a legal and technical term under Constitutional law and for which the wearing of a t-shirt by a 12 year old simply does not apply. Should I be concerned that Dawkins, who, after all, is a noted biologist and well-respected in his field, misapplies a technical term in the field of Constitutional law, when he has not trained as a lawyer, nor is he an expert in the nuances of Constitutional law? I don’t know. Should I care when he misconstrues and misapplies terms and concepts and draws erroneous conclusions in other areas in which he has no expertise?

You will also note that the First Amendment specifically calls out Religion under its protection, so Dawkins may be upset that Religion has preferential treatment in the USA, but it does so by law, and by the way, none of this addresses the supernatural. Nevertheless, there is an irony I want to point out.

Immediately after this example of the privileging of religion, Dawkins gives another (and now timely) example involving the printing of cartoons of the Prophet in Denmark circa 2006 (p 46). He goes to great lengths to describe how the cartoons were used by some Muslims to deliberately foment unrest and cause property damage and murder. He is rightly upset about this, but he has a special anger for those folks who “…expressed ‘respect’ and ‘sympathy’ for the deep ‘offence’ and ‘hurt’ that Muslims had ‘suffered…”’ (p 49). Dawkins does say that he is opposed to offending or hurting people just for the sake of it. But, he further says that “All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defense.” This is at least a tacit defense of those who printed the cartoons of Mohammed.

Let’s reverse these two examples of ‘privilege.’ Suppose the 12 year old wore a t-shirt expressing anti-Muslim sentiment (which in fact he did.) Suppose the Danish paper published cartoons slandering Gays. Would Dawkins then be supporting the kid’s right to wear the t-shirt? Would he tell gay folks to “get used to it”?

If I were him, I would reply by saying gay people are real and God is not. I don’t think he would say gay people are real and religion is not, and maybe he wouldn’t say since all the religious are weak-minded, they shouldn’t have any rights. But I do wonder.

What the above last example suggests to me is that Dawkins conflates religion and supernatural. I say that because, so far, all his discussion has been about religion and the things people do in the name of their religion. But, this is not an argument against the supernatural. It is a comment on human beings and the things they do. And he apparently feels that if not for religion, the world would be a sane and rational place and everyone would just get along. That’s an open question. But simply convincing everyone that God is not real won’t make people behave. I am perhaps pessimistic when I say that it is more likely that people will find some other way to justify their actions. In fact, in a secular world, this is already happening. People are blaming their environment, their social status, their education, their historical ties to slavery, their lack of privilege, etc. for all their failings. This is hardly the sole province of religion.

Dawkins promises to dispense with proofs of God in Chapter 3, and then explain why there almost certainly is no God in Chapter 4 and the book club will discuss these chapters on January 29th.

(Next: The God Hypothesis.)

Basking In His Brilliance

Continuing a discussion of “The God Delusion”

By: FRATER BOVIOUS


Allow me to write a preface to the paperback edition...

Allow me to write a preface to the paperback edition…

(CARROLLTON, TX – Cradle of Civilization) I am four pages into the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion. The first paragraph dispenses with unfavorable reviews thusly:

Several unfavorable reviews begin with the phrase, which I long ago learned to treat as ominous, ‘I’m an atheist, BUT…’

The phrase is ominous because:

The sequel is nearly always unhelpful, nihilistic or – worse – suffused with a sort of exultant negativity.

So, unfavorable reviews are irrelevant when written by atheists, because?

Because Dawkins says so.

We are further admonished to “Look out for…trick…” statements from the likes of CS Lewis that “I used to be an atheist” because that statement serves to establish “street cred” and it is surprising how often it works.

Here, in the first two paragraphs of his preface, Dawkins has told us to never mind dissenting opinions, because, never mind them, they aren’t legitimate, because, obviously.

Dawkins further supports his dismissal of dissenting opinion by explaining that he needn’t fully engage with the writings of those who believe God exists in order to refute their arguments because it is not necessary for him to study Pastafarianism to refute the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He then recounts a bit of satire from an admirer named P. Z. Myers, I think because he believes the satire provides compelling support for his lack of need to understand what he is arguing against.

Myers uses the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes to compare the people who suggest that one should at least have a passing understanding of the argument before refuting it, with the sycophants who refuse to admit that the emperor is naked. It is a clever bit of writing. Clever as it may be, it is ultimately irrelevant for at least two reasons.

First, this kind of smug ridicule is tantamount to schoolyard bullying where two or more people are making fun of someone else-the attackers simply reinforce each other and heap derision on their target. Now, I have been on the receiving end of schoolyard bullying and I have participated in such bullying. I have also been a passive observer and at times I have tried to intervene. Here is what I know about schoolyard bullying: at no time has it ever been mistaken for reasoned debate.

Second, it does matter whether or not you are arguing against the actual position of the opposition. Presenting the Flying Spaghetti Monster as a religion, and then refuting that religion, says nothing at all about any other religion, and here is why: If you are debating with someone about rugby and football, and you are thinking of American football and the person you are talking with is thinking about what Americans call soccer, you can’t argue the merits of football as opposed to rugby in any meaningful manner. As you compare various rules about both games, the person that thinks “soccer” when he hears “football” will be unable to defend his sport, largely because the arguments against football/soccer will seem nonsensical and it will be difficult for him to defend his position as there is no common starting point.

The thing is, just because the soccer aficionado cannot defend his sport against irrelevant argument is no demonstration that his sport is not worth defending. Nor is it a reason to simply disregard his argument because you don’t understand his sport and assume it to be something it is not.

So, there we are.  FB

(Next: Asking the Wrong Question)

The God Delusion

Autobiography of Richard Dawkins?

By: FRATER BOVIOUS


Let us hope he has a stronger argument than "nanny nanny boo bobby."

Let us hope he has a stronger argument than
“nanny nanny boo bobby.”

(CARROLLTON, TX-Cradle of Civilization) An obscure book club, Men on Books, will undertake the reading of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This book has been described by the Sunday Times (London) as:

An entertaining, wildly informative, splendidly written polemic…

And Penn and Teller allow as to how,

If this book doesn’t change the world, we’re all screwed.

The book’s dedication page is an “In Memoriam”:

Douglas Adams (1952-2001)
‘Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful
without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’

Without having read the book yet, this I take as possibly indicative of his approach: A garden is beautiful, and you don’t have to believe in the supernatural for that to be so. To which the only response I can presently muster is, “So what?”

Nevertheless, the HDL will meet every other Thursday, beginning on 1/15/2015 and discuss what we have read. There are ten chapters and two chapters seem to average about 90 pages or so, and so we will tackle 2 chapters prior to each meeting, or 1 chapter a week. We will review the merits of the argument presented, and comment on same.

Note, as of this moment, I have no intention to prove the existence of God. I wish only to see the merit of the position that Dawkins champions, which I believe is stated in the title of Chapter 4: “Why there is almost certainly no God.”

I will, after each meeting of HDL, post a brief summary of our discussion of this book. FB

(Next: Basking In His Brilliance)