Thursday, April 19, 2012

Quick thought on Dawkins' argument against God


Richard Dawkins offers an argument against theism in The God Delusion. The key issue is complexity. How do we account for the complexity of the world we see around us? Not, says Dawkins, by invoking the God hypothesis, because a God would have to be at least as complex as the complexity he is invoked to explain.

But is this an argument against the existence of God, or merely a refutation of one argument for the existence of God (the argument from complexity)? If the latter, Dawkins can hardly claim to have established there is no God. Even if the argument from complexity is a poor argument for the existence of God, maybe there are better arguments? Maybe there is a God nevertheless?

But actually, Dawkins claims to have shown that God must indeed be highly improbable because, if unexplained complexity entails improbability, then God must himself be highly improbable. Indeed - God must be even more improbable than whatever complexity he is invoked to explain.

In response, theists have argued, for example, that God is simple not complex. God is a single, simple mind which can entertain complex thoughts. The mind that entertains those complex thoughts is, nevertheless, itself simple.

Rather than get into that issue, I want to raise another worry - a worry concerning Dawkins's claim that his argument is "scientific".

Is it? The key principle seems to be that if the complexity of something is explained as the deliberate creation of a mind, then that mind must contain at least as much complexity as the complexity it is supposed to explain.

This principle does seem plausible. If I deliberately fully design and then subsequently build a mousetrap, that mousetrap's structure must be fully represented in my mind (or at least in my blueprint) prior to my building it. My representation must represent each of the various parts of the trap and how they fit and work together. So my my mental or physical representation must itself have parts. It must be at least as complex as the designed trap.

But, assuming this principle is true, is it a scientific principle? Did scientists discover it to be true?

If it were a scientific, empirically established principle about representations that they are at least as complex as that which they represent, we could be sure that it would apply to physical beings like ourselves. But then why should we suppose it applies to beings that transcend the empirically observable world, such as gods? If the principle is a mere law of nature (alongside other laws, such as that every action has an equal and opposite reaction) why suppose it applies to gods?

In short, if Dawkins's principle is a scientific, empirically established principle, it seems it can't do the work Dawkins requires of it.

However, if the principle were some sort of logical and/or conceptual truth about representation, then presumably it will apply to gods too. In fact, I think Dawkins's principle, or something like it, probably is such a conceptual truth (one that e.g. Wittgenstein's picture theory of meaning articulates - Wittgenstein's theory requires a structural isomorphism between a representation and that which it represents).

But establishing such logical/conceptual truths is the business of philosophy, not science. So Dawkins' argument turns out to be a philosophical argument, not a scientific argument.

In which case, Dawkins' well-known disdain for philosophy is ironic. He's actually doing - or needs to do - philosophy here, not science...

22 comments:

Mike D said...

Hmmm. My understanding of that particular argument is that it wasn't meant to demonstrate the non-existence of god (or the implausibility thereof), but to illustrate the epistemic conundrum that theists put themselves in by attempting to explain complex mysteries by appealing to things that are even more mysterious. That, and he's showing that "Goddidit" essentially constitutes an arbitrary termination of an infinite regress that is created by making such appeals.

The theistic canard of "God is metaphysically simple", as WLC has put it, is just laughable for its utter inanity. What does that even mean? I don't think even apologists have any idea. It's like using the rules of logic to try to prove the existence of God, but when the rules catch up to, you just say, "Ah, but my God is magic! He's not bound by the rules of logic!" It's a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card.

Thomas Larsen said...

Mike:

"My understanding of that particular argument is that it wasn't meant to demonstrate the non-existence of god (or the implausibility thereof), but to illustrate the epistemic conundrum that theists put themselves in by attempting to explain complex mysteries by appealing to things that are even more mysterious."

By this logic, scientists should pretty much give up and go home: why posit quarks, dark matter, quantum physics, and the like to explain observations when these things are even more mysterious to human beings at the present time than the observations which led scientists to suggest them in the first place?

Suppose Sue sees a computer for the first time; it's a complex mystery to her. Should she appeal to an even more complex mystery—a human being—to explain it, or not?

The Atheist Missionary said...

[I apologize in advance for leaving a comment which is probably longer than the blog post]

Comment 1 of 2:

Dawkins' problem is that he fails to accept that intelligent design can be considered as a scientific hypothesis. Of course it can and it fails miserably.

I wasted precious hours of my life reading William Dembski's The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (2004, InterVarsity Press). Now please keep in mind that Dembski is "the show", so to speak, when it comes to propounding ID. This is as good as it gets. Here are a few snippets:

Chapter 13: Objectivity and Subjectivity "to attribute specified complexity to something is to say that the specification to which it conforms corresponds to an event that is vastly improbable with respect to all material mechanisms that might give rise to the event. So take your pick - treat the item in question as inexplicable in terms of material mechanisms, or treat it as designed. But since design is uniformly associated with specified complexity when the underlying causal story is known, induction counsels attributing design in cases where the underlying causal story is not known". This is where he goes seriously wrong. Unless we know all the material mechanisms, why defer to design? This is a blatant admission that Dembski is using the inference of design to explain what appears to be inexplicable.

Chapter 14 - Dembski likens the quest for asserting specified complexity in natural structures to the quest to asserting regularity in pi. He suggests that skeptics are imposing requirements on ID theorists that are: "so stringent that they are absent from every other aspect of science". No cite. Hmmm, how about simply insisting that that ID make one single prediction about any natural system that turns out to be true after empirical testing? Is that imposing too high a threshold?

[This is where his reasoning really runs amok] ".. science must work with available evidence and on that basis (and that basis alone) formulate the best explanation of the phenomenon in question. This means that science cannot explain a phenomenon by appealing to the promise, prospect or possibility of further evidence. In particular, unknown mechanisms or undiscovered ways by which those mechanisms operate cannot be invoked to explain a phenomenon. If known mechanisms can be shown incapable of explaining a phenomenon, then it is an open question whether any mechanisms whatsoever are capable of explaining it.". Exactly. An “open question” means we don't yet know the answer. Demsbki continues then suggests design becomes assertible if "good reasons exist for asserting the specified complexity of certain biological systems". OK, what are the good reasons for asserting design when every biological system that we have figured out (i.e. the mammalian eye) appears to have evolved from natural mechanisms?

I love this line: "If evolutionary biologists can discover or construct detailed, testable, indirect Darwinian pathways that account for the emergence of irreducibly and minimally complex biological systems like the bacterial flagellum - ID will quickly pass into oblivion." Scientists will gladly accept your challenge. Now, what testable criteria result is Dembski using to determine which biological system has been designed and which hasn't?

Another great line: "There's only one way evolutionary biology can defeat ID, and that is by in fact solving the problem it claimed all along to have solved but in fact never did - to account for the emergence of multipart, tightly integrated complex biological systems (many of which display irreducible and minimal complexity) apart from teleology or design". This is pure unmitigated (à la Law) bullshit. Why is design the preferred option to "I don't know but I'll keep looking for a natural explanation?"

The Atheist Missionary said...

Comment 2 of 2:

Chapter 15 - The Chance of the Gaps. If I could recommend one chapter of the book for people to read, this is the one and I bet Dembski would agree. He spends considerable time arguing that any occurrence which exceeds his "universal probability bound" of 1 in 10 to the power of 150 must be reasonably attributed to design. But he doesn’t explain why the occurrence of his supposed designer is immune to this threshold, aside from postulating a "designer outside the known universe". He then writes: "... when we find specified complexity in nature which no embodied, reified or evolved intelligence could plausibly have placed there, it is a straightforward inference to conclude that some unembodied intelligence must have been involved." Fail – as physicists like to say “not even wrong”. What Dembski's calls a straightforward inference, I call attributing ID as the cause for something we cannot yet explain. Do we rule out a designer? Of course not - we shouldn't rule out any explanation. But how does positing a designer further the inquiry and how does Dembski propose to rule out unknown natural causes/mechanisms falling below his universal probability bound? Also, why is Dembski so quick to rule out other theoretical possibilities (which he refers to as inflationary fallacies) and rule in his supernatural wand waver?

Chapter 20 - Nature's Receptivity to Information Oh sweet Zeus ... I want everyone to read this chapter. Dembski embarks on a tortured description of how an unembodied designer might impart information to a natural system without imparting energy. This is hilarious bald assertion: "But unembodied designers who co-opt random processes and induce them to exhibit specified complexity are not required to expend any energy. For them the problem of expending energy to move material objects simply does not arise." Somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory, I've heard this same explanation before. Here it is:

Then he'll land in a fish bowl.
He'll manage just fine.
Don't ask how he'll manage.
That's his job. Not mine.

Dr. Seuss , If I Ran The Circus (Random House, 1956).

Christian theologian/philosopher Randal Rauser has tidily summed up ID as follows: "ID is not a scientific theory. Rather it is a claim in the philosophy of science regarding what kind of causes can be appealed to in scientific theorization", The Wedge Strategy of Fiat USA and other Nefarious Intelligent Designs (September 2, 2011 blog post). This description hits the nail on the head. If ID supporters wish to speculate that a supernatural cause explains the origin of life on earth, they should go ahead and prove it. The Nobel prize awaits them. Dawkins does himself no service by presupposing they will fail in this challenge.

Dominik Miketa said...

It can be made into a scientific argument, I think. I'm not sure if Dawkins' actual argument is of this exact structure, but this is what I take of it:

We only observe intelligence as an emergent property of highly complex physical systems. So we can tentatively assume that intelligence is only that; an emergent property of complex systems.

When theists talk about God, they use very anthropomorphic language; specifically, they talk about intelligence. But can they, given that, as far as we know, intelligence is inseparable from a physical system?

The answer is no; they separate a concept from the physical reality on which it was modelled. It's a fallacy.

I think that's where Dawkins is trying to get. I personally find it the most persuasive argument against the existence of divine intelligence.

BenYachov said...

Dawkins and Myers are to put it kindly fucking philosophically incompetent morons.

Both have only one narrow anti-religious polemical skill set and one only. Both are extra-ordinary in their competence to refute anti-evolution arguments put forth by Young Earth Creationist types. That's it! They have no other use other then spouting simplistic platitudes.

If you want a sophisticated philosophical critique of religious claims you need an Atheist Philosopher.

Smith, Smart, and even Prof Law would be better.

As for Dawkinss warmed over critique of the Boeing 747 "god".

I am convinced an entity far more complex than the Universe did not in fact created the Universe. I am a strong Atheist in regards to it's existence.

However Boeing 747 "god" (or could we call it Azathoth?) bears little or no resemblance to the God of Abraham & Aquinas.

Thus Dawkins has it backwards. He needs to prove this entity exists and created the Universe. Because if "Azathoth" did it then YHWH clearly did not.

wombat said...

Perhaps the argument Dawkins alludes to is largely a mathematical one like something from information theory in which case we would be back to a turf war over whether mathematicians are a sort of specialized philosopher or a type of scientist. (Or even just a useful type of scientific apparatus!)

Thomas Larsen said...

BenYachov:

"Dawkins and Myers are to put it kindly fucking philosophically incompetent morons."

Just relax, man. Vitriol isn't going to help anyone.

"However Boeing 747 'god' (or could we call it Azathoth?) bears little or no resemblance to the God of Abraham & Aquinas."

Does the God of Aquinas bear much resemblance to the God of Abraham?

Mike D said...

Thomas,


By this logic, scientists should pretty much give up and go home: why posit quarks, dark matter, quantum physics, and the like to explain observations when these things are even more mysterious to human beings at the present time than the observations which led scientists to suggest them in the first place?


The key difference is that all of those mechanicisms fall within the realm of empirical sciences – they are ideas that can be tested and falsified.

And in the case of more conjectural ideas that are as yet unfalsifiable (like various concepts in M-Theory), no one is going to trumpet them as satisfactory explanations – just possibilities that, to be accepted, must ultimately be empirically validated.

Posting God as an explanatory mechanism, by virtue of being definitionally beyond any horizon of evidential epistemology, is in principle untestable, unfalsifiable, and therefor useless and irrelevant.

BenYachov said...

>Does the God of Aquinas bear much resemblance to the God of Abraham?

Ah yes? I don't mean to offend you but that is a very silly question.

It's like asking if the God of Muhammed bears much resemblance
to the God of Ibn Sīnā.

Peace.

Rabbie said...

I don't mean to offend you Ben, but that was a very silly reply.

YHWH and the Trinitarian God of Aquinas are clearly separate entities. I may have missed something, but I am not aware of any "prophecy" in the Hebrew Scriptures where YHWH states that he will walk the earth in flesh as the second person of the Trinity, or condescends to sink to the level of the surrounding pagan entities by impregnating virgins.

BenYachov said...

@Rabbie

I don't mean to offend you either, but that was also a very silly reply.

At least in terms of Natural Theology & Philosophy the God of Aquinas & Maimonides are both identified with YHWH & metaphysically identical.

(We might add Ibn Sīnā to that mix.)

Granted on the level of revealed theology they are different since Aquinas accepts the New Testament & Maimonides did not.

Cheers.

Rabbie said...

Ben:

The divinity of Christ must inevitably create an unbridgeable gulf between the gods of Aquinas and Maimondes

cheers

Rabbie

Benyachov said...

>The divinity of Christ must inevitably create an unbridgeable gulf between the gods of Aquinas and Maimondes.

Rather between the specific Dogmatic Faiths of Aquinas and Maimondes. On the level of mere natural theology they believe in the same God.

Obviously Aquinas is not a Rabbinic Jew and Maimondes is not a Catholic Christian.

Cheers.

Rabbie said...

Ben, on the level of natural theology, did Muhammad and Aquinas believe in the same God?

cheers

Rabbie

Benyachov said...

>Ben, on the level of natural theology, did Muhammad and Aquinas believe in the same God?

Most likely, thought Muhammad was suppose to be illiterate. The extent of his illiteracy can be debated but I doubt he understood Aristotle's metaphysics like Aquinas, Ibn Sīnā or Maimondes.

Natural Theology BTW is what we can know about God using mere natural reason and philosophy sans Divine Revelation.

Cheers.

Rabbie said...

Well Ben, it seems to me that there will always be lasting disharmonies between revelation and natural theology. Aquinas himself was pretty sure that he did not worship the God of Muhammed. It is also hard to see how Natural Theology could distinguish between a monadic and a triune diety.

cheers

Rabbie

BenYachov said...

@Rabbie

>Aquinas himself was pretty sure that he did not worship the God of Muhammed.

He denounces Islam and Muhammed no question. But he never says Islam doesn't worship the same God as Christians on the level of mere natural theology. That is just a brute fact.

>It is also hard to see how Natural Theology could distinguish between a monadic and a triune diety.

That is because it absolutely can't do that. In fact in Catholicism it is heresy of the first rank to suggest the Trinity can be know via Natural Theology or philosophy. The Trinity can only be known by divine revelation alone.

Cheers.

Rabbie said...

@Benyachov

In Islam belief in the Trinity is a heresy of the first order, as it is seen as committing the sin of shirk, or associating partners with God. As revelation will always trump reason when it comes to establishing the nature of God, beyond the level of Natural Theology the three deities of the Abrahamic faiths will always remain objectively separate and irreconcilable. The God of Philosophy seems like a scholastic addition to these three.

I rather see Natural Theology as a "having your cake and eating it" sort of move. Reason and faith sometimes don't sleep too peacefully together.

Cheers

Rabbie

Anonymous said...

re Krauss-ian and Dawkinsian "science":

Nonsense has been elevated
To a Science we can feel.
And we think we have imagined
That “No-Truth” is all that's real.

Marcus Morgan said...

If our base is belief and we aim at refining it by calling it knowledge using self consistent logic applied to observations, then it is an open process scientifically due to that philosophical proposition.

If one aims at verifiable knowledge then the most logical approach may be to totally ignore the spiritual line of enquiry, from my readings into spirituality.

It may lack parsimony for Dawkins to go beyond that to actually deny God's existence. I have written about this in a book published last month, available free at thehumandesign.net

Corny said...

Brilliant!

Dr. Law have you seen that video where Dawkins is disussing Lawerence Krauss' newest book?

David Albert's critical review of Krauss' book in the NY Times was brought up and Dawkins basically dismissed the critique by stating "Albert is a philosopher"

Critique here, I'm sure you've seen it

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html


Well even if that is the case, Albert WAS a theoretical physicist at one point, but Dawkins dismissal was quite arrogant IMO.