Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Richard Dawkins

A recent column by Richard Dawkins, presenting what purport to be arguments against the existence of God:
Entities capable of designing anything, whether they be human engineers or interstellar aliens, must be complex -- and therefore, statistically improbable.
But says who? How does Dawkins purport to know that any entity that could be deemed "God" is both "complex" and "statistically improbable"? Elsewhere, Dawkins has written derisively of the "argument from personal incredulity," i.e., the argument that because one is personally incredulous that evolution could have done this or that, therefore evolution didn't do it. Fair enough. But here, Dawkins is offering his own argument from personal incredulity here -- he says that God is "statistically improbable," but given that the statistics cannot be measured here, Dawkins is saying nothing other than that he is personally incredulous when he thinks about the possibility of God. I don't think this proves anything.

Later Dawkins amplifies:
Theologians attempt two (mutually incompatible and pathetically inadequate) answers to this unanswerable point. Some say their God is not complex but simple. This obviously won't wash. No simple god could design bacterial flagellar motors or universes, let alone forgive sins or impregnate virgins.
Again, says who? Dawkins seems to think that he's stumbled on a definitional principle here: Anything complex must have arisen from something else that is of equal or greater complexity. But as can be seen from the world of fractals, such a principle is certainly not universal: apparent complexity can arise from simple equations. (If Stephen Wolfram is right, then more than just fractals can be generated from simplicity.) I wonder if Dawkins has attempted to demonstrate this principle elsewhere.

I understand where Dawkins is coming from -- he views it as stealing a base for theologians just to assert that "God" is "simple" yet able to create "complexity." The problem, though, is that Dawkins has no more substantiation for his supposed disproof, which is just the bald assertion that "God" cannot be "simple."
Presumably recognizing the justice of that, other theologians go to the opposite extreme. They admit that their god is complex but assert that he had no beginning: He was always there and always complex. But if you are going to resort to that facile cop-out, you might as well say flagellar motors were always there.
What is this supposed to mean? We already know for sure that life was not "always there," and apart from a few implausible theories, the universe itself was not "always there" either. So the real question is whether the universe somehow sprung into being out of nothing, or whether some outside entity had anything to do with it.

I've always found this argumentative move baffling -- if someone accepts that the universe had a beginning and tries to speculate about what (if anything) came before, it's no answer for Dawkins to say (because he doesn't like where the speculation is heading) that we "might as well" pretend the universe always existed. That's not a satisfying answer. (Maybe you don't find "God" a satisfying answer either, but at least it has the virtue of not being such an obvious pretense.)


Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

I'd agree that Dawkins is bungling the arguments here, but I think he's pretty much on the right track.

Regarding the first point, what seems clear is that while a "first cause" might be "simple" in the way, say, a recursive iteration of a polynomial is "simple," such a first cause wouldn't be an "intelligent designer." Intelligence is complex by definition.

Regarding the second, what Dawkins is addressing is the theist's appeal to the principle of sufficient reason. The problem, of course, is that if God is supposed to exist, then the principle of sufficient reason seems to demand a sufficient reason for God's existence. Theists respond to this apparent demand by claiming that God is metaphysically necessary. The problem with this line of response, however, is that the parallel claim that the physical fundaments of the cosmos (branes? quantum gravitational foam? a timeless point?) are metaphysically necessary is at least as theoretically motivated and far more parsimonious.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Thanks for the response.

Re the first point: Intelligence is complex by definition, you say. But complex in the way that Dawkins' argument demands? I've seen him argue elsewhere (if I recall) that any God that created complexity here would have to be himself of equal or greater complexity. Whether one looks at fractals or at Rube Goldberg machines, there are instances where one can't tell how complex the input was just by looking at the output. So I don't see why that claim is definitionally true.

Re the second point: I'm not sure I grasp the concept that anything about the universe's very existence (as opposed to non-existence) is "metaphysically necessary." How so?

9:31 PM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

My initial point was that the claim that "[a]nything complex must have arisen from something else that is of equal or greater complexity" (I'm assuming Dawkins actually said this somewhere) is unnecessary for something like Dawkins' basic line of argument to go through. That basic line is, as Dawkins says, that "[e]ntities capable of designing anything, whether they be human engineers or interstellar aliens, must be complex." The key word is "designing." Not merely "causing." While, say, a Wolframean "simple program" causes complex outputs, it doesn't design them. Saying that the universe was caused by a simple program (or something of relevantly similar informational simplicity) is something like the opposite of saying it was designed.*

On the second point, I'm not saying that anything about the universe is metaphysically necessary. I'm saying that if you are going to assume that whatever caused the universe (if anything caused it) is metaphysically necessary, there is no reason to presume that that necessity must be God; it might just be some fundamental, eternal, cosmogonic stuff.


* I suspect a lot of confusion on this point is engendered by the theological notion of divine simplicity. That notion is about ontological structure, and has nothing to do with the relevant informational or entropic sense of the word 'simple.' For instance, look at Wolfram's criteria for what counts as a "simple program":

1. Its operation can be completely explained by a simple graphical illustration.
2. It can be completely explained in a few sentences of human language.
3. It can be implemented in a computer language using just a few lines of code.
4. The number of its possible variations is small enough so that all of them can be computed.

I take it no theologian would want to say that God is "simple" in this sense!

11:34 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Re the second point: I'm still not sure I follow. An example that comes to mind -- let's say that it's metaphysically necessary that 2 + 2 = 4. That's always going to be true in all possible universes (assuming that the numbers are given the same definition). Still, that principle, even if metaphysically, cannot cause there to be two objects in my right hand and two objects in my left hand, adding up to four objects. It's just a principle -- it doesn't cause anything to exist.

So grant that any number of principles are metaphysically necessary, but I still wouldn't see why there's all this stuff lying about -- planets, stars, etc. Why is there stuff rather than no-stuff? That's the ultimate question, and I don't see why it's any less base-stealing to say, "Stuff just came out of nowhere," than to say, "Somebody made the stuff" (particularly if the person who says the latter cannot conceive there being a even a miniscule possibility that the sort of stuff we see just came out of nowhere, whereas that other somebody . . . well, who knows what its properties of existence are.)

1:37 PM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

It seems to me that the assertions "Stuff just came out of nowhere" and "Somebody made the stuff" are equally "base-stealing." But this fact doesn't rebut Dawkins' argument, because he's just countering the claim made by some theists that the apparent need for an explanation as to why "there's stuff rather than no stuff" entails that somebody made this stuff. (So he's not claiming that that apparent need is met merely by asserting that the stuff was always there.)

2:48 PM  
Blogger Nathan Shumate said...

Sure, God is statistically improbable. But there only has to be one instance. :)

1:26 PM  

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