Monday, July 5, 2010

Richard Dawkins, Neville Chamberlain, and Tony Blair, part I

So I just finished reading "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. I know, I'm a little late, but in a way the book is even more meaningful now that there is some cultural infamy surrounding it. In this post I will give my thoughts on Dawkins central thesis: that God almost certainly does not exist.

The failure of most of Dawkins' critics to understand his arguments in many ways makes his case even stronger. We're all used to creationists mis-representing science, either out of ignorance or out of deliberate attempts to set up straw men that work in their favor, but it seems that sometimes this applies to agnostics, too [disclosure: I consider myself something between an atheist and an agnostic, and reading this book didn't change my opinions much].

The usual criticism one can use in defense of possibility that God might exist is the universe, after all, exists, and so why something instead of nothing? The most basic problem with this argument is that a universe in which God exists has exactly the same problem: where did God from? Dawkins points this out again and again, and yet some people don't seem to get it. At one point, Dawkins discusses the possibility of multiple universes (the multiverse) as one explanation for how we happen to inhabit a universe that is suited to develop life (this is a variation of the anthropic principle: how is it that the Earth is so perfectly suited for life? Well, if the Earth weren't suited for life, we wouldn't be here, but intelligent life might be on some other of the billions of planets that are suited for life, wondering exactly the same thing).

Robert Stewart, writing for the Journal of Evolutionary Philosophy (whatever that is), seems to be either an agnostic or an evolutionary theist, so we can leave fundamentalism out of it, for now. Yet he seems to employ the same tactic that many of them use:

Dawkins' explanation of the multiverse was short and vague, and his case for cosmological evolution required the reader to see connections between a loose collection of fuzzy concepts.

Throughout the book, he throws the term ‘natural selection’ around like it means the same thing as evolution. But evolution requires ‘random mutation’ as well as natural selection, and Dawkins' failure to address the question of how universes might randomly mutate spells doom for his probability argument.

Biological evolution is only possible because of the laws of nature that govern the universe and give organic molecules their remarkable properties. [emphasis mine] With cosmological evolution, however, there must be no external laws governing how universes behave, otherwise we would be back to square one trying to explain where these higher laws came from.

Every possible way in which a baby universe might be different from its parent would have to be determined by the internal laws that govern the parent. Every universe would have to contain the potential design of every other universe that ultimately descended from it. This would include the seeds for life in our universe.

This addresses one possible variant of the multiverse hypothesis in which new universes are born within black holes of existing universes, but it completely misses the point. The reason Dawkins refers again and again to natural selection is that it has the power to raise our consciousness of how other routes to existence are possible. Before Darwin, the fact extant species were created wasn't proven, it was assumed. The fact that modern physics hasn't explained the origin of the universe is not reason to evoke God as a reasonable alternative. So when Stewart says "Biological evolution is only possible because of the laws of nature that govern the universe and give organic molecules their remarkable properties," it becomes clear whats going on. If Stewart had been around in Darwin's time, he would have argued that biological evolution was impossible because we didn't at the time nature of the organic molecules and their remarkable properties. As we still don't really know really know what the universe is made of, the Darwin of physics is yet to be born. The answer is unlikely to be cosmological evolution, but a creator God that set the universe in motion is even less plausible.

Even so, one problem I had with the book that the supposed central thesis: that there is no God, was largely confined to one chapter. Most of the rest of the book is concerned with the danger that religion poses - I'll cover that in part II of this post.

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