The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - a review.

 Imagine, as Richard Dawkins invites us to, joining John Lennon in a world without religion, a world with "no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts" etc.  Sunday School clearly didn't have quite the desired effect.  Dawkins' latest book, published at the end of a year in which religion dominated the news in all directions, obviously appeared at an opportune moment, as his sales figures bear witness to.  With Creationism (sorry, Intelligent Design) on the march still in America, and fanatics apparently around every corner, indignant 'brights' both sides of the Atlantic have rushed their concerns into print, and that Dawkins, who has obviously been brewing this one for a long time, has joined the fray must come as no surprise.   Given its nature as a sort of sustained philipic, its somewhat uneven nature is perhaps inevitable, something that has been pointed out in several of the more negative notices that the book has received (eg from Terry Eagleton and Thomas Nagel).

Every age of faith has had its critics, but a few names stand out in in every generation as the sternest.  For many years now, this honour, dubious or glorious according to taste, has been held by a member of the scientific or empiricist tradition: one thinks of the roll-call from the nineteenth century onwards: Tyndall, Galton, Huxley, Ayers, Russell, and now Dawkins, Wolpert, Dennett.  In the eighteenth century we were offered the sometimes mischievous agnosticism of Hume; but across the Channel was the more full-bodied flowering of d'Holbach and Diderot.  Of course, this is a motley connection of names, of greatly varying ability and temperaments; but still, there is a sort of common theme: nearly all of them would claim to have been convinced that the existence of God is bascially ruled out by facts we know about the world, be it the alleged inherent motion of matter (Diderot), the ruling out of metaphysics by the empirical programme (Ayers) or the explanatory power of natural selection (Dawkins).  This odd settling on empirical facts to settle the question of the existence of God, supposedly beyond or above facts, may be seen in the context of ruling out direct personal experience as being too subjective and metaphysics as being too opaque and untrustworthy.  Then, what else could there be?  Or so the argument runs.

The God Delusion
is divided into two rather similar size chunks, the first being a sort of investigation into what Dawkins calls the 'God Hypothesis', and the second an investigation into the evolutionary roots of religion, and to alternatives to traditional religious home patches such as ethics, shooting abortionists and (presumably, although Dawkins is not explicit here) jumble sales and mouldy vestries.  As the latter half is largely a mix of ad hominem comments that, as Dawkins himself says elsewhere hardly have a bearing on the basic issues, and which have been widely commented on elsewhere, I shall largely ignore it and concentrate on the first.  Let's see how he gets on.  

Rather promisingly, he starts with a chapter that deals with the sense of wonder at the natural world, shared by both his school chaplain (apparently not a Secondary Modern then) and Einstein.  After more preliminaries, mostly settling old scores with Steven J. Gould and Michael Ruse in which the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell's Orbiting Teapot make their first appearances, Dawkins gets down to the meat of the matter: Messers Aquinas, Anselm, Pascal etc.  It must be said that Dawkins' heart does not really seem to be in this section, as his treatment of especially Aquinas is so perfunctory as to make one why he bothered to include it in the first place - perhaps his editor made him.  The trouble is that Dawkins is so keen to get onto the next chapter, which contains what he evidently considers to be an irrefutable rebuttal of the existence of God, that the great monuments of mature theological reflection don't really have the pulling power to detain him.  I'll deal with the two together, then. 

 Dawkins' basic point is that Aquinas' famous Five Ways include two real arguments, one the Cosmological, and the other the Argument from Design.  Rather curiously, Dawkins thinks that the first of these is dead, and only the second, the one that he has written many fine pages on debunking, has any currency.  So: the Cosmological Argument at its heart is about why there is existence at all, and the Argument from Design is about why existence is ordered in such a user-friendly way.  If you accept both, then you are close to classical Theism; if the first but not the second, to Deism; and if the second but not the first, to Gnosticism or Platonism with its ordering Demiurge.  Dawkins, of course, accepts neither.  His reasons for not accepting the argument from design are well known since the admirably clear Selfish Gene, and need not detain us right away: but he reduces the cosmological argument to the design one too.  To be specific, Dawkins' complaint - and it is a famous one - is that even if you accept that the universe requires a First Cause, whatever that is requires explanation in itself: and if that thing is complicated, which he claims God in the traditional sense must be ('what bandwidth!'), then you have not explained anything.  Complexity, for Dawkins, and this is an interesting aspect to his views, must certainly come about through either i) a vast amount of luck, or ii) (preferred option) natural selection.  I agree.  Indeed, as other commentators have pointed out, Dawkins comes close here to raising natural selection to a sort of universal principle here, to the extent that one might think that his vaunted empiricist credentials are being somewhat compromised.    In other words, if God, traditionally conceived, made the world, then He, like everything else, must have evolved through natural selection; so rather than solving the problem of infinite regress of causes, which the Cosmological Argument is meant to, it simply exemplifies it, and in spades.  

Dawkins thinks this is straightforwardly unanswerable, and this seems to be the reason that he finds it hard to focus on other arguments.  Of course, as he goes on to admit, we do not have a readily identifiable cosmological equivalent to natural selection yet (although he urges physicists to look for one) and thus order in the universe as a whole has yet to be accounted for. Dawkins attempts this by a mixture of the Weak Anthropic Principle (things had to be like this, otherwise we would not be here worrying about them) plus a variety of the old saltational arguments that he himself has spent so much time destroying: i) given the gazillions of planets we strongly suspect of existing, one of them is fairly likely to produce life even if life itself is highly unlikely; ii) in order to generate a universe with the right and subtle balance of universal constants that could generate atoms, let alone pangolins, an awful lot of universes must be available, either serially (the cyclical universe, which on both observational and entropy grounds seems to get more unlikely by the day) or in parallel (the multiverse, with countless baby universes popping into (or perhaps more properly, out of) existence, all of which have slightly varying laws and constants).

In spite of what Dawkins thinks, the cosmological argument has been intensely discussed in the last few years, enlivened partly by the 'Kalam' version of it so vigorously, but not decisively, promoted by William Lane Craig.  To give a taster, Craig thinks he can prove that the universe had a definite point of origin that he, not unreasonably, identifies with the initial singularity of Big Bang cosmology.  This conviction, which seems implausible on the surface, is based on certain controversial aspects of the instantiation of infinities (ie in this view infinities are mathematical fictions that cannot refer to physical realities).  For example, if the universe, or something similar, has always existed, then we would never have been able to get to the present, as there were an infinite number of things that had to happen first.  Or, suppose we meet someone who is counting '-3...-2...-1...0, there, I've done it!', ie someone who from all eternity has been counting upwards from infinity up to the present, and thus numbering all the instances of time there have been.  Like in Hilbert's Hotel, which has an infinity of rooms all of which are full, but where one can still squeeze in more guests (indeed, an infinite number more) by shuffling guests around, this leads to disturbing contradictions that emerge from the fact that two infinite series can be indefinitely paired of with each other: an infinity of past time that ends in 1859 is pairable with an one that ends in 2007.  But if so, why would our indefatigable counter happen to come to an end just now - why not a hundred years ago? Indeed, given that she has had an infinite amount of time to finish, there would never be a time in the past when she would not yet have come to an end, despite the fact that she has an infinite number of things to count: a basic contradiction that suggests something is seriously wrong with assuming an infinite past. For anyone who finds this sort of thing gives pleasure (I accept the number may not be infinite) no better nor entertaining introduction can be obtained than Rudy Rucker's psychodelic novel White Light.  

Any case, the basic and ancient point that persists is this: if everything - radically considered - came into existence 13.7 billion years ago, what made it do so?  Twittering about quantum fluctuations etc does not do the trick, because for there to be a fluctuation, there must be something to fluctuate: the quantum vacuum does not even come close to being 'nothing at all'.  As even Hume said, the idea of nothing at all really giving rise to something beggars the imagination: indeed, it is the shipwreck of rational inquiry.  Conversely, if Craig and conventional modern cosmology are wrong about the infinities and the initial radical singularity, the problem of the eternally existing universe, complete with energy, space-time manifolds and so on, remains: a complex, uncaused thing (or, perhaps better, collection of things).  In fact, although Dawkins seems to imply that such a universe would give Aquinas a hangover he would never get over, Aquinas explicitly discusses it and, although it is far from his preferred option, is not fundamentally challenged by it: causality can be generative as well as temporal (ie even an eternal universe demands a cause).  Dawkins says that he can imagine the universe evolving - through an as yet unknown selective process - from simpler origins to the more baroque structure we see today. 

The trouble with this -  apart from the ultimate origin problem mentioned above - is that selection, as Dawkins is of course aware, does not work in situations of extreme simplicity: it requires a certain level of pre-existing complexity (e.g. variation, transmission mechanism, selective pressure etc) to work.  We can thus account at least conceptually for the origin of life by proposing that these mechanisms, nowadays taken over by genes and phenotypes and ecology, were originally embodied in something else (RNA, clay minerals or some other precursor).  But going backwards in the evolution of the multiverse, one would by hypothesis lose more and more complexity until eventually one would simply run out of machinery: nor would there be anything else to replace it as its precursor. 

In any case, any theologian worth their salt (and despite what Dawkins thinks, they certainly exist) would not be fazed by the general and oft-repeated point that God must be 'complex' and thus 'needs explanation'.  Defined as the originator of all there is, God cannot be considered to be an existing thing, a point made repeatedly over the years, most notably, perhaps, by Paul Tillich.  To put it another way, talk of God's existence, and thus His cause, is a category mistake: God is not a thing that, like the universe, so impertinently demands explanation.   Of course, this makes bloggers such as those that frequent the charmingly named '', and from whom Dawkins quotes approvingly, moan about pseudophilosophical, well, bullshit I suppose.  Love it or loathe it though, that is the unsettling concept that one is logically forced to deal with; it is but one route to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the fearful yet compelling Other).  

Perhaps tellingly, we get some picture of all this from the other end of the scale, ie our own consciousness.  For although our brain is highly complex, and is in various physical states that are correlated in ways that we are only beginning to understand with our mental states, our consciousness per se is not complex: indeed, its most striking characteristic is what Kant called the 'transcendental unity of apperception' - a unified whole rather than a complex mass of interacting 'mental atoms'.  Yet it is by making conscious decisions that we interact with the world and, for example, bring order about it in.  Of course, it might be, as Dennett would have it, that there are lots of shenanigans going on behind the scenes of consciousness, and that there are various correlates of brain activity that take place antecedently to conscious decision.  Still, the point, that I do not think Dawkins would necessarily disagree with, is that our self-experience as non-physical entity that lies outside the material world but yet - effortlessly! - interacts with it is not seriously damaged by this, nor is it clear how it could be.   Oddly, Dawkins makes no play about consciousness in the book, which does not even feature in the index, even though one would have thought that a delusion implies a conscious deludee.  It is our very ability to think in extremely general terms - presumably an apomorphy that arose in one of the basal Homo stem groups (as Conway Morris has implied, such an ability may have also arisen elsewhere too) - that leads us to the contemplation of the dizzying and profoundly disturbing aspects of the origin of the universe, or more simply to the general problem of our own existence. 

As Karl Rahner put it, to radically eliminate God from the picture, so that future humans not only did not believe in God, but no longer remembered even the concept, they would have to be radically different from what they are now, and indeed, considerably less to Dawkins' own taste, who talks (extremely irritatingly, it should be said) about 'consciousness-raising' throughout the book.  We've had consciousness-raising before, ie some time in the Pleistocene, and it led straight to religion. 

What is tantalizing about Dawkins is that, as convert-Dawkins fanatics have optimistically noted, he writes about some of this stuff: both in his first and last chapters, and I believe it is an investigation of the aesthetics of science and religion that is going to be most fruitful.  The Dorset coast is beautiful; and understanding its geology only adds to its beauty.  But walking west over Hambury Tout until the line of chalk cliffs beyond Durdle Door suddenly comes into view; or watching a storm crash into Worbarrow Bay: that is sublime, an experience that can be neither added to nor subtracted from.  Such experiences, which can also accompany ethical, artistic and cosmological and relational reflections, all point towards and beyond the boundary conditions of our understanding, and continuously shock us out of our complacent common sense of how the world is.  If we are to take Dawkins at his own word in Unweaving the Rainbow, then I don't think he believes this sort of numinous backdrop to our life is going to be explained away by neurological or evolutionary investigations, even if it is explained. In this he would join with Rahner, who notes that the florescence of all the 'ologies' concerning humans has not yet succeeded in removing or even eroding our basic self-understanding: ever on the outside of the world, ever gazing in, while wondering all the while.

Postat av: Anders Rasmussen

I have not read this post yet. I just wanted to advice you to have more spaces in your text - to make it more readable. I almost fall flat down when I see the appearance of the text.

Your topics seems interesting and they coincide a lot with what I write about. I will add a link to your blog from mine

2008-01-08 @ 20:23:01
Postat av: Beda

Thanks Anders - I know this looks unreadable
I'll see what I can do...:-)

2008-01-08 @ 21:42:25

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