Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Problems with The God Delusion, part II

Part I

In chapter 3, Dawkins addresses various proofs offered throughout the ages for the existence of God. He begins with the five proofs offered by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica. His summaries are telling in what they mention and fail to mention:
The first three are just different ways of saying the same thing, and they can be considered together. All involve an infinite regress – the answer to which raises a prior question, and so on ad infinitum.

  1. The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to a regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move, which we call God.

  2. The Uncaused Cause. Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God.

  3. The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God.


All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to regress.[1]

Before I address Dawkins’ approach, I want to address the notion of proof, particularly as it relates to Aquinas’ proofs. While there are certainly deductive proofs that lead inexorably to a required conclusion, not all proofs must be deductive. Inductive proofs are also legitimate, although imperfect, and lead not to conclusive ends but to probabilities (that is, justifiable but not proven in the popular meaning of the term). As Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath point out, these arguments only show “the inner consistency of belief in God,” not “its evidential foundations.”[2] The McGraths point out that many atheistic arguments operate in the same fashion. Dawkins himself resorts to argument by probability later in his book where he explains that “the odds of success as low as one in a billion would still predict that life would arise on a billion planets in the universe.”[3]

Given that Dawkins can only explain the development of life and not its efficient cause (that is, the cause that induces an effect—life—that changes the potentiality of a thing into actuality), its rather stunning that he can’t imagine probability in the case of finite or infinite regress of the material universe. He, in fact, shows that he holds no distinction between what is material and what is not. While he accuses believers of accepting God as axiomatic, he commits the same “error” by axiomatically accepting that the material universe has always existed. The three first proofs of Aquinas demonstrate that, given a finite material universe, there must be something external to that universe to cause it. That much is a simple application of cause and effect.

Whether you accept a finite material universe or an infinite material universe, you have an axiom at either end. However, given the consistency of the principal of cause and effect, the clear ever-changing nature of matter, and the probability for any material object to exist at one time or another, one has to admit at least to the probability that at one time, since all material objects have the potential not to exist, there was at least a probability of no material object existing—a probability that must certainly be far from zero. Given infinite time, the probability had to be an actuality at least once if not more. If it was true once, it need not ever be true again because once we have no matter, we have no matter. Nothing. It would take something outside of the material universe to propel matter into being. At that point, we require an external uncaused cause, an unmoved mover. If this occurred, it is far more likely to have been at the beginning of the regress than somewhere in the middle (although there is nothing to say that the process could not have occurred more than once). While Dawkins can admit a one-in-a-billion billion probability, he can’t see what appears to this layman as a much higher probability that the material universe was caused at the outset by something nonmaterial.

Of course, Dawkins doesn’t even pretend to address any of this. Instead, he dismisses all three proofs with the following: “They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to regress.”[4] Does he substantiate this statement? No. Instead, he shifts the goal post:
Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.[5]

Suddenly, Dawkins jumps from a question of God’s existence to God’s essence. I don’t think most scientific epistemologies allow for such a great leap, but Dawkins doesn’t know enough about theology to know that it has an epistemology of its own. However, even this is really beside the point. He makes no attempt to address the basic points of the three proofs. Aquinas himself offered several objections to each and then refuted them (as he did with every one of the arguments in Summa Theologica beyond those few proving the existence of God). That was the method d'jour.

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UPDATE: I need to clarify something here, as Mike pointed out some sloppy wording on my part. God's essence is His existence. That's a basic doctrine of the faith. What I meant to say was that Dawkins leaped over the facts of His existence and went right to the properties of God. In the very little philosphy that I've had since I began my theology program, we should approach these questions in a particular sequence based on Aristotle's methodology, working from general to more particular. Aquinas does just this. Anyway, the sequence is this:

1. Does x exist?
2. What is x?
3. What are the properties of x?
4. Why does x have these properties?

Dawkins leaps to question 3 without truly addressing the validity of question 1 (not to mention 2). To the first question, the line back from effect to cause leads us to an uncaused cause (whether this is a probablity or definitive). To the second, we have to say that God is pure actuality—there is no potential in God because He is unchanging. You see that this relates directly to the uncause cause. God doesn't change; He only has a formal aspect. Matter changes, so it has a formal aspect and a potential aspect. From here you can then move on to properties.

Back to our regularly scheduled denunciation...

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Dawkins also spends some time on Pascal’s wager.[6] I can only say, as with other philosophical demonstrations, he removes so much of the context as to reduce it to ludicrous simplicity:
The great French mathematician (one wonders why he bothered with the adjective great) Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.[7]


Of course, Dawkins fails to note that the wager is based on the assumption that we cannot trust reason,[8] in which case, it is hardly a proof and is a wager in the true sense of the term. He misses the point Pascal was trying to make, or he ignores it completely. As a reporter of the “facts” of philosophical proofs, then, we have to conclude that Dawkins is either not up to the task or is simply not being honest.

The entire chapter is filled with these kinds of tactics—not rational arguments but dismissals, not careful refutations, but polemic denunciations. Dawkins is not just playing out of his depth here: he’s standing on the side of the pool trying to comment on a game of water polo when he can’t even swim.

Part III

1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), p. 77.
2. Alister and Joanna Collicut McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Athiest Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p. 25.
3. Dawkins, p. 139.
4. Ibid, p. 77.
5. Ibid, p. 77.
6. “Pascal's Wager,” (2008, April 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:46, April 23, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pascal%27s_Wager&oldid=207300276
Dawkins, p. 103.
“Pascal's Wager.”
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