Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Problems with The God Delusion, part III

Okay, I have to admit that I've been remiss. I intended to get back to this sooner, but I've had other projects in which I'm more interested. In addition, I'm back in class this semester, and I'm running out of time on the second check-out of this text. I'm going to have to turn this book back in and let someone else have it for a while.

Not that I'm all that interested in keeping it around.

Part I
Part II

So I'm going to abbreviate this post to address just a few claims Dawkins makes and pose a question concerning the apparently irresistible impulse of evolution to higher, more developed forms of life.

First, in Chapter 3, Dawkins makes the claim that there is no good historical evidence that Jesus ever thought he was divine (p. 92). This claim is in response to C.S. Lewis's comment that Jesus could only be "liar, lunatic, or lord." What he means here, of course, is that there are no first-hand accounts that Jesus made this statement, and that much is true. However, there are four clear second-hand accounts that make this claim ludicrous, mostly because someone (Jesus) who allowed his disciples to misunderstand him so completely as to claim His divinity without rebutting their claims (as in Matt. 16:16-18 or John 20:28) would be no good man or good teacher. This leaves us with only the three options that C.S. Lewis mentioned: liar, lunatic, or Lord.

"Not so fast," says Dawkins. He brings up the fact that the apostles had their own agendas (p. 92). Certainly they did. But did it include going to their own violent deaths to defend something they knew to be false (the Resurrection)? We might have no first-hand historical accounts confirming a claim by Jesus, but we also have no first-hand historical accounts that any of the apostles ever denied that Jesus rose from the dead to avoid the end that most of them met: a martyr's death. So we're back to whether Jesus was liar, lunatic, or Lord.

Here's where Dawkins is audacious. He suggests that one possibility is completely overlooked: that Jesus was simply mistaken (p. 92).

Because people frequently mistake themselves for the creator of the universe and perform miracles that back up that claim (raising the dead, curing the blind, feeding multitudes with next to nothing, stilling a stormy sea).

Back to liar, lunatic, or Lord.

His claim for the staggering assuredness that there is almost certainly no God stems from his application of probability to the question of life on other planets. He claims that there's (say) a one in a billion chance that life can exist on a planet, and that there are billions of planets in a galaxy and some 100 billion galaxies, then that must mean that there are billions of planets that one can predict bear life (p. 140). Of course, he doesn't mention how he comes up with the possible one in a billion chance of life arising on a planet. This figure is a complete SWAG*. Yet he's confident that this proves his point that God almost certainly doesn't exist.

Of course, nothing in evolutionary theory yet explains the orgins of life (only of species), much less can science explain how inert matter eventually became amino acids, then proteins, then self-replicating single cells. Evolution only explains how life evolves, not how it begins. And it doesn't explain how matter arrives on the scene either or why anything at all exists. As I mention in part II, all there needs to be is one chance in infinite time and space of the simultaneous nonexistence of all matter for there to be nothing. Yet all of the chances Dawkins can conjure out of his speculation cannot explain the origin of life.

UPDATE: One Last Question

One of the points to which Dawkins' repeatedly comes back is the notion of chance or randomness. What surprised me was that Dawkins' says that evolution does not involve chance, or in Einstein's words, "God does not play dice." Dawkins' indicates that evolution leads inexorably toward improvement or advancement, that building a better meat machine (my words) is the physical law built into the evolutionary process. I actually find this take on evolution easier to accept than the notion that complete randomness leads to something as intricate as the mammalian brain.

However, this idea raises a question. If this inevitability is built right into evolution and we have multiple environments in which evolution takes place, leading to certain parallels in evolutionary development (say, fish and aquatic mammals in one environment, marsupials in another, and primates in another), why is it that a late comer to the evolutionary game, human beings, manage to develop such a wildly different type of intelligence than can be found anywhere else in the natural world, especially when one considers how much time humanity spends doing things that have little to no bearing on survival in a strictly biological sense? Dawkins suggests that many of these behaviors are "by-products" of other instincts that do aid us.

If you look at the sheer amount of time people spend doing things that are not directly related to procreating, feeding, and staying warm and safe, you have to admit that the majority of human activities are a waste. Yet most of those very activities are what distinguish us from other animals and demonstrate this uniquely human capacity for thought and creativity. No other animal demonstrates such preoccupation and variation in play and leisure. Some might consider this thought to be the height of human arrogance—specieism. Yet even that value judgement points to something else that is unique about us. We can hold values that countermand the evolutionary impulse to procreate and continue the human species. In some, this valuation comes out in absurd notions such as specieism. In others, it comes out in the heroic willingness of one person to step in the line of danger without regard for personal safety so that another no-more-deserving person can continue to live.

The nonrandomness of evolution, the inexplicably vast chasm between human and nonhuman animal intelligences, and the near ubiquitous notion that we refer to as "natural law" all suggest to me that there is purpose and meaning in human evolution—that there is a way in which we and how things should be, despite how things are. As Mark Shea is fond of saying, we cannot derive an ought from an is. If there is no purpose for our lives beyond mere existence, there can be no absolute basis for moral value judgements or behavior. To me, these three factors point overwhelmingly toward purpose, and purpose can only exist where there is intent. The material universe has no intent. It only follows physical laws that are inherent in it. So "intent," if it exists, must be extrinsic; it must be present because something outside provided it.

UPDATE 2: Interestingly, Dawkins is apparently more willing to assign intent to a higher intelligence in the form of aliens rather than a transcendent creator God. That suggests the some other evolved creature is for some reason wasting time raising time-wasting intelligence on other planets. If this last scenario is the case, maybe we should be referring to Dawkin's theory of inane origin.

*Stupid wild-a**ed guess. To be fair, it may not be a SWAG, but since Dawkins rarely cites any of his claims, it's difficult to tell. However, at least one commenter has suggested that Dawkins' grasp of probability and how it's calculated is flawed—that probability is multiplicative rather than additive. I think what he means is that if you have a one in a billion chance of something happening, it is not added to other chances but multiplied with them. So a one in a billion chance will multiply with another one in a billion chance to become... ?
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