Against Dawkins on God

I think most of my friends are atheists. Also, most people online are inundated with more material than they can absorb. Information is proportional to surprise. I’ll inaugurate my blog in a manner I hope will be surprising.

Dawkins has argued that God is a delusion. In the following I argue that God exists: science answers questions about how, but insofar as it answers questions about purpose (“why”), it can only do so relatively: one thing is good for another. Such judgements are very useful, but they presuppose that we know that some things are good from some other source.

I should note that Dawkins sees himself as a partisan of science in a struggle with religion. He constructs a theory about how humans could have come to make ethical distinctions, which he claims obviates the need for such an entity as God. In the main his arguments are aimed not at God per se but at religion, which I don’t wish to argue about at all. After all, if God does exist, then God is not dependent on people who believe in God — rather the reverse.

Dawkins takes God to be a hypothesis about how things happen, which has been or should have been superseded by the better theories of science. I see the situation a bit differently: God has been a hypothesis about how and why things happen. Science has found beautiful explanations for how things happen, but has rather undermined the reasons that people used to believe about the purposes of things. Indeed, much of that undermining is salutary: the purpose of a planet is not to influence the lives of mortals. But some things must have a purpose. Whence?

Quickly, Dawkins might respond: we give things purpose. But who or what gives us purpose? An atheist may say: nothing, and claim to be satisfied — but most would admit in all honesty that they are only satisfied because there is no other alternative. And yet, strangely enough, many scientific atheists are willing to admit one transcendent thing. Let me call attention to one argument of Dawkins:

God who is capable of sending intelligible signals to millions of people simultaneously, and of receiving messages from all of them simultaneously, cannot be, whatever else he might be, simple. Such bandwidth! God may not have a brain made of neurones, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know. [Dawkins, Richard (2008-01-16). The God Delusion (Kindle Locations 2564-2567). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]

This is a perfectly good argument against a physical God. But note the argument might also seem to apply to the Law of Nature (which I put in the singular here as I am following Dawkins in avoiding complicating the discussion with polytheism). Particles collide all over the universe — how do they know how to interact? One could say, well the particles themselves know. But think of all the bits of instructions each particle has to have to have its own copy of the Law!

In fact, scientists are usually happy to believe in the Law as something not in itself physical. Although a hard-core anti-realist would say that even this exists only in peoples heads, more common would be to say: yes — the Law is an exception. We are willing to admit its existence because of its extraordinary explanatory power.

But is the Law only about physics? The nub of the question is this: does the Law pertain directly to conscious persons? Can an act or decision be Right or Wrong, irrespective of the society or even in principle the species of the actor? Or, contrariwise, are all judgements about an individual only valid in a particular social or evolutionary context? The former is tantamount to the existence of God.

Dawkins makes the case that morality evolved. Indeed Pinker recently argued that it is still evolving. I am convinced by these arguments. However, just because the morality of human societies evolves, doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have recourse to some external standard to judge one set of mores better or worse than another.

Consider the Romans: the Pax Romana was a justification for genocide. Despite the other benefits the Roman order brought, we will probably feel, as even many Romans did, that the ruthlessness of the empire was wrong. But are we really just making a comparative statement with our own beliefs, who’s basis is an accident of evolution? Are we perhaps arguing that evolution naturally proceed probabilistically to more sophisticated lifeforms, and so therefore we can assert with some probability that our morality is more adaptive than theirs was.

But the rejoinder is clear: why is adaptive better? If you say, well that’s just the survival meme… nothing is really “better” absolutely, but I can be self-consistent and say that I believe it, however unjustifiably. But now you’ve come to Vaihinger’s “als ob”. Is it really confortable there? Why not have the courage of your convictions? Nothing stands in your way to say it is better. Indeed, Dawkins’ work is suffused with the conviction that it is right to believe in science: the Law is on his side. In fact, maybe Dawkins believes in God, and just doesn’t want to admit it!

Just keep in mind: you can be right, and all those other people with whom you disagree with and who believe in God can still be wrong, even if God does exist.

4 thoughts on “Against Dawkins on God

  1. Not often you hear someone bring up Vaighiner’s “as if”. Vaighiner would point out that these “Laws” are themselves “as ifs”. He’d have a field day with Dawkin’ “memes”. Pure, unadulterated, Fiction.

    • Well, thats not quite how I see it. Let’s say that the redoubts of Cartesianism are not undefended, but they are becoming less relevant. As an anti-Cartesian I find that faintly disappointing.

      When speaking of thoughts (or “ideas”) as such, there is only so much you can say after abstracting away from the thinker. But if Popper was the shop-floor version of Vaihinger, then Dawkins’ “Memes” theory is the technicians’ version of Hegel. The notion of “propositional content” (to say nothing of “scientific theory”) turned out to be quite useful for more modest uses in computer science even if it never allowed to completely ignore context as was hoped. Analogously, “memes” allow us to focus on the “marketing apparatus” around a thought: a humbler but possibly more practical vision than of the great battle of Ideas that Hegel wrote about.

      Concerning Vaihinger, it seems to me that his philosophy is infected with the psychologism prevalent in all Cartesian thought (including Husserl’s): certainty is a mental state. It is not a necessary (or always possible) companion in the search for truth.

      Certainly, Dawkins doesn’t loose any sleep about certainty. I brought up Vaihinger in this context — I though mischievously, but undoubtedly obscurely — because I am arguing for God as a sort of “thing-in-itself”: a necessary external referent for making moral judgements, about which we may not be able to say much, in general, except to assert its existence.

      • “Concerning Vaihinger, it seems to me that his philosophy is infected with the psychologism prevalent in all Cartesian thought (including Husserl’s): certainty is a mental state. It is not a necessary (or always possible) companion in the search for truth”

        I’m not understanding what the problem is here. Vaihinger was an empiricist, like that of Hume and Mill. He was no Cartesian, from what I see. He didn’t believe in some duality, but that there were only sensations. I don’t see how one can really argue against this, when it’s the most obvious.

      • A Cartesian founds philosophy on what they find to be certain. Either they try to extend from here, or draw limits. After Kant, these investigations involved an explicit investigation of the “form” of consciousness, which was thought to show how and what can be certain. Vaihinger was a Cartesian in this sense, and also a Kantian.

        My point is that doubt and certainty are psychological states. You can doubt the validity of a complex but true mathematical equation, or be certain of one with an error, without affecting the truth or falsity of the equation.

        There are two sorts of errors a Cartesian (or more explicitly a Kantian) makes: one is asserting that the existence of things depends on your certain knowledge of them. The other is more subtle but because of this more pernicious: to demarcate between certain and doubtful, you promulgate an “object model” of what a person is, without good evidence for it.

        For instance, you have stood in conversation with many people. Perhaps you were dreaming about any one of them. But this is not evidence for the fact that a person is a sensation processing machine. Indeed, describing a conversation via the impressions it produces is an abstract description. I claim a concrete description of a conversation via impressions is much less likely to be correct than a report of the words of a conversation. Consider:

        I had the sensation of hearing the spoken word “dog”.

        But is this honest? Really something more like this would be the case:

        I had the sensation of the phonemes represented by “d”, “o” and “g”, which I interpreted to be “dog”.

        But really, we should describe the actual sounds that conveyed these phonemes. Also how have we learned to categorize these sounds as these phonemes? We should really say they sounded similar to these phonemes uttered in other instances, and thus we have classified them together. How simliar? Which other occasions? Since we are unlikely to remember, we should include this inexactness in our description as well.

        But, in the end, since we aren’t conscious of the details of how our brain processes sensations or comes to interpret them, we will be less and less certain the more we try to produce a description. That there were sensations involved may be certain. But which sensations exactly were involved is no more certain — indeed a good deal less certain — than that there were spoken words and a speaker who spoke them involved.

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