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Calling Dawkins' Bluff

Author:

Keywords: God, belief, atheism, rationalism, arguments, philosophy, logic

Book title: The God Delusion
Author: Richard Dawkins
Publisher (h/b): Bantam Press (UK); Houghton Mifflin (USA)
Pub. date (h/b): 18 September 2006 (USA); 2 October 2006 (UK)

'The book goes through the different arguments in favour of God, showing the fallacies behind each.' - James Swingle[1]

 

In 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?' I responded to Richard Dawkins' attack on the evidence for God's existence from cosmic fine tuning, and engaged with his far from 'unrebuttable' argument that the existence of God is very improbable. Here I will rebut Dawkins' attack upon several other arguments in favour of the existence of God.

 

The Ontological Argument

Jim Holt points out that Dawkins:

dismisses [Anselm's] ontological argument as 'infantile' and 'dialectical prestidigitation' without quite identifying the defect in its logic. He seems unaware that this argument, though medieval in origin, comes in sophisticated modern versions that are not at all easy to refute. Shirking the intellectual hard work, Dawkins prefers to move on . . . Dawkins' failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading [The God Delusion] an intellectually frustrating experience.'[2]

Alvin Plantinga, a contemporary defender of Anselm's line of thought, defines God as a 'maximally great being' and argues that a maximally great being must exist if its existence is possible because 'necessary existence is a great-making property.'[3] (A great-making property is one that is objectively good and allows for a logical maximum. The goodness of existing per se is a great-making property that allows a logical maximum in necessary existence. And although - as Hume and Kant pointed out - saying that something 'exists' does not add to the list of its properties, to say that something 'exists necessarily' does add to its list of properties.) Given the additional premise that 'the existence of a maximally great being is possible'[4], it follows that a maximally great being therefore 'exists, and exists necessarily.'[5] Contra Dawkins, the ontological argument can be expressed as a logically valid syllogism:

Premise 1: By definition, if it is possible that God exists, then God exists

Premise 2: It is possible that God exists

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists

Faced with the ontological argument, the atheist does have a 'get out' clause; but embracing this get out clause is not without its price. The ontological argument shows that 'the person who wishes to deny that God exists must claim that God's existence is impossible.'[6] That is, denying the existence of God is not on a par with denying the existence of the Loch Ness monster. To deny the existence of the Loch Ness monster, one needn't make the claim that its existence is logically impossible, because one can coherently claim that Nessie simply fails to exist despite being logically possible. However, to deny the existence of God one does have to make the claim that God's existence is logically impossible, because one cannot coherently claim that God fails to exist despite being logically possible. This seems to be a price that many non-theists are willing to pay, despite the fact that no independent argument has ever shown the concept of God to be incoherent. Nevertheless, Plantinga argued that his version of the ontological argument at least showed that belief in God was no less rational than disbelief:

it must be conceded that not everyone who understands and reflects on its central premise - that the existence of a maximally great being is possible - will accept it. Still, it is evident, I think, that there is nothing contrary to reason or irrational in accepting this premise. What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability.[7]

He has subsequently contended that the 'modal ontological argument', 'provides as good grounds for the existence of God as does any serious philosophical argument for any important philosophical conclusion.'[8] The ontological argument may or may not be a sound theistic proof, but it is not logically invalid.

 

The Cosmological Argument

In a quotation-free discussion of the matter, Dawkins claims that the famous five 'ways' of Thomas Aquinas[9] 'are easily - though I hesitate to say so, given his eminence - exposed as vacuous.'[10] Dawkins should have hesitated more and written less. For example, noting Aquinas' use of the principle that a causal regress must terminate somewhere (lest, per impossible, it becomes infinite), Dawkins complains that Aquinas' cosmological argument makes 'the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.'[11] Dawkins fails to recognize that the cosmological argument just is an argument for the necessity of postulating the existence of a being that is 'immune to the regress'! Consider the following cosmological argument:

Premise 1: Some things are caused (e.g. this sentence)

Premise2: It is impossible for everything to be caused

Conclusion: Therefore there must exist an uncaused thing

This argument is logically valid, and the first premise seems to be beyond dispute, so the only question is whether or not it is possible for everything that exists to be caused. As soon as one asks 'caused by what?' one can see the problem with hypothesising that everything is caused. Outside of everything is nothing, and 'from nothing, nothing comes'.

 

The Argument from Degrees of Perfection

In the fourth 'way' of his Suma Theologica, Aquinas argued thus:

Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But 'more' and 'less' are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being [i.e. maximally ontologically secure]; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in [Aristotle's] Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.[12]

In Aquinas' own words, the fourth way appears to be made up of two overlapping syllogisms:

  1. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like

  2. But 'more' and 'less' are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum

  3. so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being

  4. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus

  5. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God

After merely summarizing Aquinas' fourth 'way', Dawkins attempts a reductio ad absurdum (a 'reduction to absurdity'):

That's an argument? You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God.[13]

Unfortunately, Dawkins fails to notice that Aquinas' argument works with 'great-making properties', a class of properties into which 'smelliness' - the subject of Dawkins' rebuttal - simply does not fall. Christopher F.J. Martin observes that Aquinas is concerned with the existence of more and less in terms of properties that by definition allow for an intrinsic and logical maximum, rather than a merely de facto maximum.[14] As E.L. Mascall explains:

Goodness, so the argument claims, demands as its cause a God who is good; while heat, though it necessarily demands a God whose knowledge of possible being includes an idea of heat, does not demand a God who is hot as its cause, but only a God who can create.[15]

In modern philosophical terminology, Aquinas is arguing along the following lines:

  1. Things exist in the world around us that exhibit finite degrees of great-making properties (e.g. being, goodness, truth, beauty)

  2. The existence of something exhibiting a great-making property to a finite degree implies the existence of something that possesses the property in question to a maximal degree

  3. Therefore, all great making properties possessed in finite degree by beings in the world around us, including being, are possessed to a maximal degree by something

  4. An effect cannot exceed the greatness of its cause

  5. Therefore, there exists a maximally ontologically secure being that possess every great-making property possessed by its effects to a maximal degree; and this we call God

It should at least be clear that Aquinas' argument is logically valid, and consequently that this line of thought cannot be dismissed with a jeering reference to smelly people, which is all Dawkins does.

 

Religious Experience

Dawkins' response to the argument from religious experience (which he never actually bothers to spell out)[16] is merely to point out that experiences can be delusional:

the brain's simulation software . . . is well capable of constructing 'visions' and 'visitations' of the utmost verdical power. To simulate a ghost or an angel or a Virgin Mary would be child's play to software of this sophistication.[17]

This single observation concludes Dawkins' attempted rebuttal:

This is really all that needs to be said about personal 'experiences' of gods or other religious phenomena. If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.[18]

This really is not 'all that needs to be said', since Dawkins' failure to advance more than one premise means that his supposed rebuttal doesn't even rise to the level of an argument. Merely observing that the brain can create illusions provides no support for the conclusion that all religious experiences are illusions. Indeed, without a second premise that both links and restricts the illusion-giving power of the brain to religious experiences, Dawkins' rebuttal counts equally against all experiences; including those which lead him to believe that human beings have brains 'capable of constructing “visions” and “visitations” of the utmost verdical power.'

 

The Moral Argument

As Paul Copan writes, the moral argument urges that although, 'Belief in God isn't a requirement for being moral . . . the existence of a personal God is crucial for a coherent understanding of objective morality.'[19] Here, then, are the two core claims made by the moral argument:

  1. Morality is objective

  2. The existence of a personal deity is entailed by objective morality

  3. Given these two premises it follows that:

  4. Therefore, a personal deity exists

Dawkins' chapter on the roots of morality merely observes that belief in God isn't a requirement for knowing about morality or for being moral, and fails to engage with the central question of whether or not the very existence of objective moral values entails God's existence. As Stephen Unwin comments:

As for Dawkins' assertion that moral behaviour for believers is simply 'sucking up to God', or that morality doesn't need faith . . . such observations miss the more fundamental question of why we have moral or aesthetic values at all - such as the ones by which Dawkins, myself and others venerate rational analysis.[20]

If the moral argument which Dawkins studiously ignores is sound, atheism entails moral subjectivism (after all, one cannot be morally obligated to, or commanded by, anything other than a person; but by definition no finite person can ground the existence of an objective moral order). Self-inflicted defeat looms for Dawkins, since his dissection of natural theology assumes that people ought to be rational.

 

Conclusion

Dawkins' critique of the arguments for God's existence in The God Delusion has received wildly enthusiastic praise from some quarters. For example, biologist P.Z. Myers thinks that:

The God Delusion delivers a thorough overview of the logic of belief and disbelief. Dawkins reviews, dismantles, and dismisses the major arguments for the existence of the supernatural and deities . . . The God Delusion is a powerful argument for how to think about the place of religion in the modern world. It's going to be a classic, fit to stand with Sagan's Pale Blue Dot and The Demon-Haunted World as a call to reason and Enlightenment values.[21]

Likewise, according to Jim Walker:

Dawkins has written, perhaps, the most powerful set of arguments against the alleged supernatural god ever written . . . Dawkins leaves no quarter open for theists… No matter how much the theist tries to run or hide, he will only run into the face of Dawkins powerful arguments. At best he can only shout ad hominems . . . Dawkins quickly exposes each of [the theistic arguments] as vacuous . . . [22]

However, such glowing reviews are so way off base that a philosophical GPS (global positioning system) would be calmly issuing repeated pleas to 'turn around when possible'. In reality, Dawkins' unscholarly procedure takes the following illegitimate route to what Terry Eagleton dubs a 'victory on the cheap'[23]:

  1. Select a far from comprehensive sub-set of theistic arguments without giving a hint that this is what you are doing.

  2. Caricature the selected arguments, referring to (but not quoting) medieval rather than contemporary versions (as John Cornwell observes, 'there is hardly a serious work of philosophy of religion cited in his extensive bibliography'[24]), or simply failing to define the target.

  3. Give the appearance of blowing away these arguments with an observation (rather than an argument) or a charge of logical invalidity that either depends upon the fact that you are attacking a straw man, or which completely misses the point of the argument you are attacking.

Scientist turned theologian Alister E. McGrath has the measure of Dawkins' procedure: 'It is perhaps his weakest book to date, marred by its excessive reliance on bold assertion and rhetorical flourish, where the issues so clearly demand careful reflection and painstaking analysis'.[25] Many laudatory reviews of The God Delusion share the view, expressed by Tim Gebhart in Blogcritics Magazine, that to believe in God means being devoid of critical thinking skills:

If The God Delusion suffers a flaw, it is an inherent and perhaps ultimately fatal one. It is almost impossible to use logic and reasoning to educate and persuade others on a subject that requires ignoring and rejecting logic and reasoning.[26]

However, the careful application of critical thinking skills demonstrates that such comments exhibit wishful thinking rather than a sober assessment of the facts. As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel's laments concerning what he calls Dawkins' 'amateur' attempts at philosophy:

Dawkins dismisses, with contemptuous flippancy the traditional . . . arguments for the existence of God offered by Aquinas and Anselm. I found these attempts at philosophy, along with those in a later chapter on religion and ethics, particularly weak.[27]

Dawkins accuses 'dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads' of being 'immune to argument'. [28] It is hard to test this assumption using The God Delusion, since it's arguments against belief in God are conspicuous either by their absence or by their invalidity. Dawkins hopes that 'open-minded' religious believers 'whose native intelligence is strong enough' and who read The God Delusion 'will be atheists when they put it down', because such people 'need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.' [29] Unfortunately for Dawkins' self-admitted 'presumptuous optimism'[30] on this point, The God Delusion fails to provide any rational encouragement to this end. Dawkins' critique of the arguments for God is one long bluff that deserves to be called. The Emperor has no clothes.

 

Recommended resources

Other Reviews of The God Delusion

Terry Eagleton, 'Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching', London Review of Books Vol. 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006

Jim Holt, 'Beyond Belief', New York Times

Thomas Nagel, 'The Fear of Religion', The New Republic Online

Peter S. Williams, 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?'

 

More on Richard Dawkins

ID The Future Podcast, 'Is Richard Dawkins Contradicting Himself by Taking Credit for Writing his Book?'

Denis Alexander, 'A Clash of Fundamentalisms' Bethinking.org

Dave Crofts, 'The Root of all Evil? Part 1' Part 2

John Lennox, 'God and Richard Dawkins' Bethinking.org

Nick Pollard, 'The Root of all Evil? The problem with Richard Dawkins' faith

Nick Pollard Talks to Richard Dawkins

Peter S. Williams, 'Darwin's Rottweiler and the Public Understanding of Scientism'

Peter S. Williams, 'Is Life Designed or Designoid? Dawkins, Science and the Purpose of Life'

Peter S. Williams, '"What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" - Comparing Dawkins' Blind Faith with Flew's Evidence'

Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, (Blackwell, 2005)

Peter S. Williams, I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism: , (Damaris, 2005)

On the Arguments for God

Apollos Philosophy of Religion

Luke Pollard, 'Does Morality Point to God?'

Peter S. Williams, 'Who Made God?'

Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (ed.s), To Everyone An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, (IVP, 2004)

Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (ed.s), The Rationality of Theism, (Routledge, 2003)



[2] Jim Holt, 'Beyond Belief', New York Times. cf. Trent Dougherty, 'Concise Introduction to the Modal Ontological Argument for the Existence of God'

[3] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, (Eerdmans, 1977), from Michael Peterson et al, Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, (Oxford, 1996), p. 158.

[4] ibid, p. 163.

[5] ibid, p. 159.

[6] C. Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1982), p. 50.

[7] Plantinga, op cit, p. 163.

[8] Alvin Plantinga, 'Reason and Belief in God', in Roy Abraham Varghese (ed.), The Intellectuals Speak Out About God, (Regnery Gateway, 1984), p. 191.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, 'Whether God Exists?' from Summa Theologica

[10] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Bantam, 2006), p. 77.

[11] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 77.

[12] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

[13] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 79.

[14] cf. Christopher F.J. Martin, 'The Fourth Way'

[15] E.L. Mascall, He Who Is, (London: Longmans, 1954), p. 53.

[16] cf. William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience, (Cornell University Press, 1991); William P. Alston, 'Why should there not be experience of God?' in Brian Davies, Philosophy of Religion: a guide and anthology, (Oxford, 2000); J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Baker, 1987); Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, revised edition, (Clarendon, 1991)

[17] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 90.

[18] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 92.

[19] Paul Copan, True For You But Not For Me (Bethany House, 1998) p. 45.

[20] Stephen Unwin, 'Dawkins needs to show some doubt', Guardian Online

[21] P.Z. Myers @ seedmagazine.com

[22] Jim Walker, 'Book Review: The God Delusion' @ nobeliefs.com

[23] Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books Vol. 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006

[24] John Cornwell, 'A Question of Respect', The Sunday Times, 1 October 2006

[25] Alister McGrath, 'The Dawkins Delusion', www.theosthinktank.co.uk

[26] Tim Gebhart, 'Book Review - Atheist Manifesto II: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins' blogcritics.org

[27] Thomas Nagel, 'Fear of Religion', The New Republic

[28] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 5.

[29] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 6.

[30] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 5.

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