Tag Archives: Dawkins


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:


The Arguments for God’s Existence

As Caricatured By Dawkins


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.

Asking the Wrong Question

Chapter 1 of “The God Delusion”


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.)