As Caricatured By Dawkins
By FRATER BOVIOUS
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,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.
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.