Sunday, 5 September 2010

Dawkins' Ultimate 747

Richard Dawkins gets a lot of criticism for the way he portrayed the arguments around God in The God Delusion. While I hear mixed things from philosophers about his reasoning, and it probably didn't help that he took a sarcastic approach to responses, it's the argument from improbability which his case rests on. Many have embraced this argument on the atheist side, while many theists and critics of The God Delusion write it off as missing what God is. Of course theists don't believe that God is a hyper-evolved superhuman, Dawkins misses what God is. He's basing his atheism on a straw-man!

IS/OUGHT
The argument is taken as an absurdity because the notion of complexity only applies to material complexity, and since God is immaterial it doesn't apply. God is of necessity, not of chance. An immaterial abstract infinite necessity that cannot be constrained by the finite contingent limited minds that we possess.

Then there's the problem of a scientific exploration of the God Hypothesis; it fails because the question of God is not a scientific issue but a philosophical one. He assumes naturalism, so of course God is going to look like a silly concept in a naturalistic construct of reality. Dawkins by taking naturalistic suppositions into the construct is misrepresenting the issue.

Yet I wonder just how we can talk of God at all when our language and conceptions are shaped by naturalism. For us to have thoughts, we now understand that the material construct of the brain underlies our mental world. So what would it mean to talk about God as "all-knowing", let alone "knowing", in a supernatural sense? For us the only way of obtaining the possibility of thought has been billions of years of evolution, gradually building complex brains capable of abstract thought.

In this sense Dawkins' argument should be clear. It's not taking the classical conception of God and dismissing it through science, rather it's taking the classical conception of God and claiming based on what we know about the world and saying what God must be. It's no wonder Dawkins says: "God wants to have his free lunch and be it too", those who describe God attach labels and phenomena that are products of the evolutionary process and then claim it's a philosophical necessity.


Raising consciousness
After laying out the Ultimate 747 Gambit, the next section is Natural Selection as a Consciousness-raiser. Because unconsciously people are wired for the design stance, natural selection is a means to make us aware of such biases. But it does more than that too, in natural selection's ability to explain us it's not only putting our mental states into a naturalistic perspective but throwing down the challenge of explaining just how a supernatural entity can possess those traits.

The problem with writing it all off to philosophy is the same reason for mind-body dualism. While one could argue there are philosophical problems with the notion of something immaterial interacting with a material, the observed relationship between the mental and brain activity is what really settles the issue. Alter the brain and you alter the mind, damage the brain and you damage the mind. While ultimately there are philosophical underpinnings on which the hypothesis rests, it would be not only absurd but intellectual poverty to ignore all empirical evidence for the sake of maintaining dualism.

It's in that sense that natural selection, indeed all scientific advancement, should raise our consciousness to what we ascribe to entities such as gods. If we know the link between neural activity and abstract though, how can we say that the supernatural can have that without having the organised complexity that comes with our naturally-selected brains? Yet this is what theists are arguing for, a super-human without the material burden that confines and defines us.


Straw-god
To me, Dawkins' argument succeeds because he takes what we know about the world and then applies it to what theists say about God. It's not an argument against the God Hypothesis as theists frame God, but an argument for what God must be to resemble how theists frame it. By calling it supernatural it's trying to get away with getting those attributes built over billions of years through the evolutionary process then claiming them as necessary for the existence of the universe, and therefore eternal life for us! (the good or bad kind of eternal life depends on whether you recognise that fact; failure to do so results in the bad kind)

The problem, it seems to me, is that it's framed as an argument against God, he's built a straw-god then knocked it down. He's missed what God actually means, hence the claims of not addressing the sophistsophisticated conception of God because of a lack of theological study. If only Dawkins could have spent time addressing the sophisticated arguments, then he could have made the same argument but without the charge of arguing out of ignorance.

2 comments:

Reasonably Aaron said...

I think the gap between our differences are less than they might appear.

"To me, Dawkins' argument succeeds because he takes what we know about the world and then applies it to what theists say about God."

I agree and disagree with you here.

I disagree in the sense that God, being the creator of the world is not necessarily subject to the laws and rules of his creation. It is therefore invalid to use the "creation" to debunk or even infer anything about the "creator".

For example, imagine we were in the matrix. The laws of physics in the matrix (the program) may not correspond to the laws of physics in the "real" world.

Now you may object and say that there is no other way of knowing - and I would agree with that. There are historical reasons why many of these arguments regarding God are put in these non-scientific ways. Many believed you could use pure reason to deduce God (indeed, some stated only pure reason could be used to deduce anything about reality) - much in the same way one can use mathematics or logic to "prove" certain facts based on certain premises.

On the other hand, I agree with you because of what you say here.

"Yet I wonder just how we can talk of God at all when our language and conceptions are shaped by naturalism."

This is, in my opinion, a very important point. Dawkins should have criticised the notion of the simplicity of God being a bad explanation because it lacks meaningful sense. Instead he glances over it in only one sentence as if its obvious that God cannot be simple and then proceeds to debunk a complex God.

This is all he really says about it...
"a 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." [TGD, p154]

He asserts it - but does not back it up.

I want to rescue your conclusion by adding a subtle twist.

The God hypothesis - with respect to the creation of the universe - is a poor explanation because the statement "God is simple" doesn't make any sense. One reason it doesn't make sense is because it runs counter to what we know about simplicity and complexity.

This formulation - in my opinion is more powerful because it doesn't go straight from experience to God, it goes from experience to God via the mind.

What do you think?

Kel said...

"I disagree in the sense that God, being the creator of the world is not necessarily subject to the laws and rules of his creation."
Indeed, but by the same token then we lose the ability to ascribe meaningful terms to the creator because what we envisage a creator to be would merely be the product of our suppositions. This kind of thinking brings someone to strong agnosticism, which I suppose is good too. Though how many theists would concede that about what they call God?

"He asserts it - but does not back it up."
I guess I just filled in the blanks myself.

"The God hypothesis - with respect to the creation of the universe - is a poor explanation because the statement "God is simple" doesn't make any sense. One reason it doesn't make sense is because it runs counter to what we know about simplicity and complexity."
Yeah, I like that. It feels a lot more Humean than Dawkins' conception, which can only be a good thing.