Wednesday, March 11, 2009


“Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, chapter 5.

I had resolved to finish reading and commenting on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, although frankly, I’m finding it a bit tedious and repetitive. But I’ll trudge on.

In chapter 4, “Why There Almost Certainly is No God,” Mr. Dawkins delivers what he seems to believe is the coup de grace to “the God Hypothesis.” It “is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist” (page 189). He does this by taking “the Argument from Improbability” away from the arsenal of theologians, creationists and apologists and showing (?) that rather than its being a proof for theism, it is really a proof for atheism!

The argument goes something like this: The probability of life originating on earth, or of complex life evolving is somewhat on the order of a hurricane assembling a Boeing 747 out of a scrap yard, or something to that effect. While this is “the creationist’s favorite argument,” it could only be made by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection” (page 138).

Dawkins agrees that complex things could not have come about by chance, but claims that this is not evidence of design. “The illusion of design is a trap …”!

Rather than design, Dawkins invokes Darwinism Natural Selection (henceforth referred to as DNS) as the whole solution to the problem. DNS is a “consciousness-raiser” that explains all.

Dawkins’ explanation of how DNS succeeds as a solution to the problem is that it “is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces.” The creationist “doesn’t understand the power of accumulation” (page 147). That’s right; the 747 doesn’t get assembled spontaneously by a hurricane; that’s highly improbable! Rather, it’s assembled in pieces (apparently by smaller storms). Little bits of improbability are easier to take!

He refers on page 147 and elsewhere to a previous book, Climbing Mount Improbable, where he explains that the development of life is not like climbing a “sheer cliff,” but a “gentle slope.” Evolution is gradual, creeping up the slope to the complex form atop the mountain.

However, even if we were to agree with Dawkins’ parable, we would still be left with certain questions which appear to not have entered his mind thus far (maybe he’ll answer them in a later chapter, but I’m not holding my breath).

The main question that’s puzzling me is “Why?” Why should Mount Improbable even be climbed at all? What is the reason for the movement from “lower” to “higher” life forms? It would seem that Dawkins has granted godlike powers to DNS: The powers of “deliberate guidance.”

Another related question is “How?” Dawkins explains the method that DNS takes to move up the mountain from lower to higher forms but doesn’t explain how it all got started in the first place. What was the triggering mechanism? Dawkins has previously mocked the idea of a first cause, yet here almost gives the credit to DNS, not only for the process, but for its beginning.

Dawkins argues for the origin of life based on the Anthropic Principle: The improbability of all the right conditions for life (or intelligent life) being found on one planet out of our whole universe. This has been used by theists as pointing to design, but Dawkins attempts to use it in his favor. His argument here is statistical, going something like this: If the odds against the conditions for life existing on any planet are a billion to one, and if there are a billion billion planets (both conservative estimates), then “life will still have arisen on a billion planets – of which Earth, of course, is one” (page 165).

This little bit of legerdemain is where, I feel, Dawkins is grasping at straws. Whatever we make of these statistics, they do not account for the origin of life on earth or anywhere else. I fail to see how “this statistical argument completely demolishes any suggestion that we should postulate design to fill the gap” (page 166).

I believe that Dawkins’ big problem, however, is that the concept of God is unattainable and incomprehensible to one who is so locked into an empirical and materialistic system of learning. He does not want a God that he cannot explain using his own terminology.

“However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable” (page 138).

“As ever, the theist’s answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained” (page 171).

“God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain” (page 176).

“The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer” (page 188).

Dawkins complains that God, if there were one, “would have to be very complex and presumably irreducibly so!” Over in over in this chapter he (at times, mockingly) speaks of the complexity of anyone who would be in control of this universe. A God who is both (to use theological terminology) both immanent and transcendant is beyond scientific observation and therefore beyond Dawkins’ comprehension (a “Divine Knob-Twiddler” – page 172).

Although Dawkins would emphatically deny it, it appears that he has made a faith-commitment, on which he has based his life. While he feels he is on solid ground basing his argument for the development of life on DNS, he seems to know his arguments for life’s origins are shaky. “We should not give up hope of a better crane arising … the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer” (page 189). He tells us on page 173, “my consciousness has been raised by Darwin.”

I know that many have read this book and agree with its author, and many have read it to argue with him. I wonder how many who have read it, have prayed for him, that the veil might be removed?

Bill Ball

1 comment:

Canadian Atheist said...

Well, he is one of the best biologists on the planet. I'd say he's pretty versed in evolution and makes a strong case from that perspective. There is proof for evolution and none for creationism.

However, even if there is a designer, you forgot he said he was a 6 out of a possible 7 earlier. He leaves room for doubt, which is really what a good scientist has to do.

He's basically making the case that there is no credibility in dogma and God belief isn't necessary. All good points IMO.

I'm enjoying reading these though. You did a good job.