Critique of “The God Delusion”, part 2

Chapter 1: A Deeply Religious Non-believer

The first chapter is fairly short, and as such there isn’t a lot of talk about, but the two parts of the chapter – divided by Dawkins into sections talking about deserved and undeserved respect – have their own unique issues that need to be addressed.

In the first section on “deserved respect”, Dawkins is basically talking about the title of the chapter, which about how he and some other “non-believers” are, in fact, sometimes called religious.  Oddly enough, Dawkins doesn’t particularly disagree with this categorization; he notes that the wonder that he feels when he looks at the world and ascribes to natural selection and science isn’t really that different a feeling from that which religious people feel and ascribe to God.  And, for the most part, all of his examples reveal this overarching awe and respect for the wonders of nature.  However, he dislikes to call this religious because he wants to reserve the word “God” for supernatural entities.  Fair enough.

The issue here, though, is that for him and for all of his examples it is clear that naturalism and the wonder and awe that they feel when they look at nature is clearly a major part of their identity and how they understand the world.  Their understanding of the world and their place in it – which generates the awe in large part – greatly depends on their views that get them called religious non-believers in the first place.  It’s perfectly acceptable for Dawkins to say that technically they shouldn’t be called religious because religious is generally used to refer to those sorts of views, beliefs and feelings that are attached to a supernatural entity, but is that division sufficient to allow us to call religion undesirable and whatever it is he’s holding desirable?  Certainly Dawkins can – and certainly will – insist that his beliefs are, themselves, better in general, but what we don’t know is how far those feelings will influence those who hold them.  If his awe at natural selection is a deeply held and crucial part of his self-identity and how he finds meaning in the world, will Dawkins be able to reject it easily if the evidence and probability turns against him?  Could he end up as rigidly attached to his beliefs as he claims religious people are about theirs?  Is the feeling the problem, not the belief itself?

One thing we can clearly say is that there doesn’t seem to be anything inherent in a belief in a “supernatural” entity called God that necessarily leads to the mind set that the belief is not to be challenged.  It seems clear that for religious people who are rigid in their belief it’s more how tightly that is tied to their personal identity than anything inherent in the belief itself.  I argue that Dawkins seems to be starting down the road where his stance towards natural selection is as important to his identity as the belief in God is to religious people.  Has Dawkins simply replaced religion with a belief that he holds as “irrationally”?  We’ll keep an eye on this as the critique progresses.

The second part talks about “undeserved respect”, and definitely seems to drift from the title of the chapter.  Basically, here Dawkins is talking about how he feels that religion has been granted respect that it doesn’t observe, and that it gets considerations that other things don’t get.

The first example I want to touch on is his example of how religions get privileged in public discussions of morality.  Here’s the quote: “Whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders will be prominently represented … why does our society beat a path to their door, as if they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor?” [pg 44].

Well, what expertise in reproductive MORALS does a family lawyer or a doctor have?  What expertise in those matters does a general moral philosopher have (although in most of the instances I’ve observed, people specializing in ethics ARE generally invited to these sorts of panels and their opinions are solicited)?  Basically, for better or for worse a large number of people at least believe that they derive their morals – at least in part – from their religious beliefs.  Religions are well noted for having stronger moral views on sexual and reproductive matters than ethicists in general.  The job of religious leaders is to study their religious texts, study matters in the world, and determine what stance the religious should take with respect to that issue.  So, religious leaders are going to – in general – represent the concerns and views of a large percentage of the population, particularly when you consider that most of the population of almost every nation is religious in some way or another.  So getting them onto those panels is a way of ensuring that the concerns of a large number of people are expressed, reflected, and raised.  This seems like something you would want if one wants to be democratic, as opposed to putting on moral philosophers whose views may not reflect those of the general population (and often don’t, in my experience).  And for any moral philosophers who might take offense at that, I’m saying that on the basis of my experiences when I took a significant amount of philosophy in general and moral philosophy specifically; the things we think about in philosophy don’t always map to what people actually think about, and moral philosophers TEND to think that such matters (sexual and reproductive) are more clear-cut than most people do.

Now, don’t take my comments above about what place doctors and family lawyers have in moral discussion the wrong way.  I do not mean to imply that they don’t understand morality or don’t have a morality (although that comment seems to be commonly made about lawyers).  It’s aimed at the fact that it isn’t their JOB to do so.  A doctor’s job is to consider what is best for their patient and what the doctor is morally obligated to do to treat that patient.  It is not their obligation to think about or have any real clue about what is best for society as a whole.  That’s not what they’re trained to do, because it isn’t what they’re SUPPOSED to do.  As for family lawyers, their job is to be expert in and understand what the law says and what the law can do.  But laws are not morals, and there is no reason to think that lawyers are more expert in, again, morality as it applies to general society than anyone else.

This is not to say that doctors and lawyers should not be on those panels.  They very much should be, so that they can present certain relevant facts that have an impact on the morals of the situation.  Doctors, for example, are required to describe the details of the relevant procedures in detail and point out the medical consequences of each option.  Lawyers are required to describe what the law actually says and what implications may arise from certain precedents.  But if we are giving priority to those who represent the moral views of a large number – perhaps even the majority – of people over these doctors and lawyers, I don’t see that as being in any way undeserved respect.  On the contrary, it’s simply reflecting the reality of the current times, and surely Dawkins wants his arguments to reflect reality.

The next two examples basically revolve around the same issue: Dawkins’ contempt, it seems, for the right to freedom of religion.  In the first example, he laments that a religious group in the U.S. allowed a particular religion to include as part of their ceremonies the use of an illegal hallucinogenic drug while insisting in a separate case that people who wish to use cannabis to relieve chronic pain CAN be charged at the federal level for their use even if the state they are in has legalized the use of cannabis in those circumstances.  His second example is about how a student who wore a T-shirt to school that claimed – among other things – that homosexuality was a sin sued and won when the school told him not to wear it, basing the suit on his freedom of religion.

The second example is where Dawkins is most blatant about his lack of respect for the right to freedom of religion.  In his comments, he states: “The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.  But they didn’t.  Instead, the Nixons’ lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion” [pg 45].

So, here Dawkins is griping that he wouldn’t have had a problem with the lawsuit and, possibly, the T-shirt if it had been defended on the right to free speech.  But because they appealed to the right of freedom of religion, that’s simply not acceptable.  It seems, to Dawkins, that appealing to a constitutionally guaranteed right and winning is religion getting undeserved respect.

It’s really hard to see what Dawkins is getting at here.   Let’s look at another quote: “Once again, if such people took their stand on the right to free speech, one might reluctantly sympathize.  But that isn’t what it is about.  ‘The right to be Christian’ seems in this case to mean ‘the right to poke your nose into other people’s lives’.” [pg 46].  Unless Dawkins doesn’t think that freedom of religion includes the ability to EXPRESS your religious beliefs, he has no objection here; expressing a religious belief is, in fact, the same as expressing any other one.  But it does cover far more than that, of course, which is what I think Dawkins REAL concern is.  Under freedom of speech, one could criticize homosexuality but one couldn’t DO anything about it; one would not be allowed to, say, refuse to marry homosexual couples under that right.  But if freedom of religion includes the right to act as if and state that homosexuality is wrong, religions would always be exempt from performing same-sex marriages if the religion considers such marriages morally wrong, even if same-sex marriages are legal.

And here is where the discussion over rights really gets interesting.  While there is some debate over whether or not same-sex marriages should be allowed, and while it’s probably safe to say that popular opinion is leaning towards the idea that they should be allowed, there doesn’t seem to be – one hopes – much support for forcing religions that consider homosexuality immoral to perform same-sex marriages inside their religion; that seems limited to a small number of loud radicals better off ignored.  Most people insist, in fact, that allowing same-sex marriages legally CANNOT be used to force religions to perform them (how long that will last is anyone’s guess).  And this is what freedom of religion gives that freedom of speech does not; the ability to say inside one’s religion that there are some things that may be acceptable to the outside world but that are not acceptable inside the religion.

And that’s why his quote above reveals a serious issue with his arguments.  He claims that freedom of religion seems to be about, for Christians, interfering in the private lives of other people.  But that isn’t it at all.  It’s about holding a moral stance about various actions and about what actions can be morally criticized and what cannot.  Dawkins seems to think that any action taken in private should be immune from moral criticism.  That’s a reasonable stance, but many people will quite reasonably disagree with that.  Whether or not that stance should be taken is PART of a moral stance on an issue.  Christians think that homosexuality is immoral.  In the minds of Christians, they say that, yes, it is allowed to have a moral judgement about private actions because that’s part of the morality formed on the basis of their religion.  And they do hold that, and insist that for them that’s how it is regardless of what the outside world thinks.

Dawkins might certainly – and will certainly – want to argue that for a great number of those things the religion is wrong – even horribly wrong – to not accept what the outside world is thinking.  And that’s fair.  However, Dawkins cannot impose that on religious people, because they have a right to their religious beliefs.  And because morality is part of religious beliefs, and because religious belief is protected by a constitutionally guaranteed right, appealing on the basis of freedom of religion is not privileging religion; religion is merely getting the same privileges that any right enjoys.

Now, Dawkins can – but didn’t in this chapter – try to argue that there shouldn’t be any such right; that making a right of freedom of religion is undeservedly privileging it.  This should be seen as a non-starter by anyone who even takes an instant to think about it.  Freedom of religion is the right to worship as you choose, or even to not worship at all.  It is an underpinning of the idea that there is to be no state religion (which, I understand, is not the case in England but is the case in the U.S., where his examples are from).  A right to freedom of religion is required in any society that isn’t egregiously oppressive.  If there was only one religion in existence, or if there was no religion in existence at all, a right to freedom of religion is of less importance; you have the freedom to do the one thing that everyone does.  However, reality is not that way; there are many religions that many people follow.  The right to freedom of religion says nothing more than “No one can impose a religion on you”.  In a world with many religions, that’s a critical thing to have.

Now, to return to the example of the drugs above.  Why should freedom of religion extend to using illegal substances?  For the reasons given above.  If freedom of religion is basically just “You cannot impose a religion on me”, we need to protect religions against someone making a critical portion of their religion illegal and then saying “Either you completely change your religion or we’ll put you all in jail.”  This also applies to religions that immigrate to a new country; if it happens to be the case that something that is legal and therefore critically part of the religion in one nation happens to be illegal in the new one, to not exempt the new religion is basically to impose a religion on those people.

However, Dawkins need not fear, as there is no right that is absolute.  The extension of “You can do things that are illegal” is only to the point where that conflicts with other rights.  Once the right to freedom of religion meets another right, we have to determine using all the normal mechanisms which right takes precedence.  So, for example, a religion that practices human sacrifice ISN’T going to get protection under freedom of religion, because the right to life trumps that right in that case.  But, again, this is no different than is the case for any other right; one does not have the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded room.

So, finally, let me turn to some comments made based on a speech by Douglas Adams that Dawkins quotes about how religion seems immune to criticism.  Adams reportedly said: “If someone thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say ‘I respect that’.”[pg 42]

Now, it isn’t clear to me what criticisms one cannot actually make of religion.  After all, as Dawkins himself shows later, there have been a large number of philosophical discussions and arguments about religion and God, both for and against.  Religious denominations have argued and disagreed – often violently – for quite some time.  Religions still try to convert people from one to the other, in much the same manner as political parties appeal to voters.  So what’s missing?

Note that Adams’ own quote pretty much shows the problem in the thinking here.  He is comparing someone basically saying that he thinks that the government should raise or lower taxes with a specific ritual that is part of a religion.  Let’s look at how the first conversation would go.  The person would make a point saying that in order to achieve some goal, taxes should be raised.  Someone else would comment that it wouldn’t achieve that goal, or that there’s something else more important, and things would go on from there.  In short, whether or not taxes should be raised is something that can be argued about.

Now let’s look at the religious case.  If someone says “I don’t move a light switch on a Saturday because of my religion”, what are you going to say to that?  How about if someone says that they won’t attend a meal where people at the table are drinking because of their religion?  What are you going to say?  There’s nothing to argue over there; it’s just a statement of what they do or believe, with no actual implication that anyone else should do that as well.  If they say “No one should move a light switch on a Saturday”, that’s an attempt to convert to a religion and, therefore, is automatically open to criticism.  But without that, what can anyone say?  “That’s utterly ridiculous!  Why would anyone with any semblance of sanity do that?!?”

And that’s really the issue with respect.  If someone simply makes a statement about their personal beliefs, it is not respectful to simply attack it.  But this has nothing to do with respect for religion.  If someone stated to someone that their wife was the ugliest woman they’d ever seen, we’d find that disrespectful as well.  If someone who was not simply kidding claimed that the brand of someone’s car was horrible, we’d find that disrespectful as well.  Basically, the issue is that simply attacking what someone believes is a sign of disrespect … for the person, not necessarily the belief.  Part of respecting a person is respecting their opinions and beliefs, even if one doesn’t agree with them.  That doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to follow them or let them force you into following them, but that also means that you don’t just insult those opinions and beliefs because you disagree with them.

So if Dawkins is getting a lot of reactions about how he isn’t showing proper respect, maybe it’s less what he’s criticizing and more what he’s saying.


Chapter 2 – The God Hypothesis

The first part of this chapter isn’t all that controversial.  Dawkins talks about what people think of God, pokes fun at some of the conceptions, and talks about Deism and what the Founding Fathers (in the U.S.) believed.  However, the “God Hypothesis” that is being discussed in the book – being mainly the Judeo-Christian one – is fairly simply defined: God created the universe, is omniscient, omnipotent and all-good, and can and does take an interest in human affairs.  At a minimum, the conception of God has to align with what is done in the Bible, so God has to at least be powerful enough to create the universe and do what He did in the Bible, knowledgeable enough to know what He knew or needed to know in the Bible, and is as good as He had to be in the Bible (Dawkins will likely claim that that’s not all that good at all; we’ll look at that later).

So, the “God Hypothesis” summed up, we can move on to more important topics, starting with his examination of the poverty of agnosticism.

Now, before getting into that, remember the definition of agnosticism given in the introduction: one does not know that God exists (and may consider it unknowable).  But there’s nothing in that that’s directly related to belief, which is what theism and atheism address.  That’s why I can be an agnostic theist: I believe that the proposition is unknowable, but still believe it to be true.  Dawkins doesn’t seem to allow that in this chapter, so before we go on its best to quickly go over what knowledge and belief actually are.

Knowledge is defined epistemologically as follows: S knows that p iff S believes that p, p is true, and S is justified in believing that p.  This is often shortened to the claim that knowledge is justified true belief.  This is correct, but almost everyone who comes across it immediately falls into the trap of thinking that, therefore, one is not JUSTIFIED in believing anything that one does not know, and if one isn’t justified in believing something well, then, one shouldn’t believe it, right?  But justified has, itself, a technical definition that doesn’t map all that well to the common, everyday notion of justified.

Initially, Descartes proposed deductive certainty as the only allowable justification for knowledge; in order to know something, it had to follow from absolutely certain premises through valid logical arguments.  It should be obvious at this point that if this was what was meant by “justified” in “justified true belief” that it could indeed be reasonable to believe something that was not justified; just think of how many beliefs you have that you don’t have logical certainty for.  And the fact that very few if any of our beliefs can be justified to that strong a level is one of the things that forced Cartesian epistemology out of the limelight.  Since it ended up that we couldn’t know anything if we insisted that to know something we had to have certainty, it was decided that we needed a weaker set of standards for knowledge.

So the important things to take from the rejection of Cartesian epistemology are a) that the standards for allowable belief may be lower than that for knowledge and b) that knowledge does not in any way require certainty and so even if you meet the justification standards for knowledge you can still be wrong.

The latest popular definition of justified in epistemology is called reliablism.  In this, justified means: produced by a reliable truth-forming faculty under the conditions where that faculty is reliable.  Reliable means that if you act on the propositions formed by that faculty, they’ll turn out to work as expected far in excess of 50% of the time (one of my lecturers was actually trying to figure out what that percentage had to be when I was doing my Masters; suffice it to say there’s a lot of debate over that percentage in epistemology!).

So, for example, our sensory faculties are generally reliable.  Generally, if we see or smell or touch or hear or taste something, what we get directly from the senses – without additional reasoning – is generally correct.  I can trust the senses, in general.  Yes, sometimes they go wrong and there are known illusions that we cannot break.  But they work a remarkably large amount of the time, and the other cases can easily be seen as conditions where the faculty itself just isn’t reliable.  For example, when looking through water our eyesight isn’t generally reliable when it comes to the location of an object, because of what water does to light.  At night, our vision is also less reliable because of the lack of light.  And so on and so forth.

So, under the conditions where eyesight is not reliable, we could not KNOW that what we see is true or accurate.  Does that mean that we can’t believe it?  If I look out over my dark backyard and it looks like the snow has melted under the tree, am I not allowed to believe that it has until I see it the next morning?  If I see someone at a mall in a dark parking lot that looks like someone I know, am I not even allowed to believe that it was them until I confirm it later, if I ever do?  That would seem silly; surely acceptable beliefs don’t have to only be ones that are confirmed by reliable faculties.

This is even more clear when we ask what, if anything, “mere beliefs” can contribute to our lives.  Take the above examples.  If I normally get up at 5 am to feed the birds, but with the snow in the yard gone they won’t require feeding, what should I do?  Should I get up anyway, or decide not to?  Part of determining this has to be my belief that the yard is clear; if I believe that it is, then I don’t need to and probably should decide not to get up.  And for the person that I saw in the parking lot doesn’t my even asking or commenting about seeing them there at least partly depend on whether or not I believe that they were there?  Basically, beliefs – including justified true beliefs – exist for me to act on them in the world.  A great number of propositions about the world aren’t easily immediately testable by any of our reliable faculties under the conditions where they’re reliable.  So a lot of propositions that we act on will be less than knowledge, but that’s okay; that’s what mere beliefs are for.

The distinction between “mere beliefs” and knowledge established, let’s look at the discussion on agnosticism, and the first thing to note is that Dawkins takes knowledge to be of the absolute certain kind.  If you look at his list of seven positions one can hold, his 1 and 7 are the only ones that talk about knowledge and both insist that the person thinks that they are absolutely certain about that proposition.  I’d submit that, definitely, 6 and 2 also fall into the knowledge camp by what we just discussed, leaving 3, 4 and 5 as the only ones that actually really address “mere belief”.

Note that I may be being slightly unfair to Dawkins here, because the list basically dumps the whole idea of agnosticism and knowledge out the window.  Dawkins here is claiming that while Huxley might have been correct in saying that the proposition “God exists” is not knowable, but that does not mean that it’s just as likely that He does exist as that He doesn’t.  So, Dawkins replaces knowable and unknowable with determinations of the probability of a proposition.

Now, the first question I’d ask is: if one is even a temporary agnostic (believing that based on the faculties we have now we cannot know whether or not God exists) by what means does one go about assigning the probabilities of how likely it is that God does or doesn’t exist?  Dawkins does, in fact, comment that agnostics shouldn’t claim that the likelihood of God’s existing is therefore 50-50, but that they should exempt themselves from the discussion entirely.  This is good in and of itself, because clearly you can’t properly assign the probability of something that you claim that we don’t have the ability to gather enough evidence to determine the knowability of.  Doing so would simply lead to subjective probabilities; you’d simply assign it on the basis on what you thought made more sense to you, which makes assigning a number a pointless exercise in faking objectivity.  So if the agnostics are right, Dawkins scale doesn’t apply to them.  So can he show that agnostics CAN calculate a probability of the existence of God?

Now, Dawkins goes on to talk about the poverty of agnosticism in this case by bringing up “Russell’s teapot” and a couple of other examples (Mother Goose, the Tooth Fairy, etc) of things that no one can prove false or true – ie that we can’t know exist – and that yet we do not consider the probability that they exist or not exist exactly the same, as we may do for God.  The problem is that he is imposing his view of probabilities on an epistemology that does not support it.  I submit that no one who encounters Russell’s teapot claim wastes any time thinking about probabilities.  Their very first action would be to ask what makes him think that there is one.  If he cannot provide anything other than a simple “It’s a good thought experiment”, no one would believe him on the basis that there is no grounding whatsoever for his belief; if he’s right, it’s clearly only accidental that he is correct, and we don’t believe in accidental beliefs if we are aware of that.  So the teapot is a monumentally bad example, just as the Flying Spaghetti Monster is, because we are certainly absolutely justified in doubting concepts that are clearly made up because the person who invented it states flat-out that they invented it.  For almost all of us, God is not such a concept; God is a concept that we discover through the comments and writings of people who are clearly insisting that it is not made-up, and that they had direct experience of God.  In short, for God the question is: “Should we believe the people who claim that God DID prove himself to them?”.  This does not apply, obviously, to the FSM and Russell’s teapot.

Now, I believe that weak atheism, strong atheism, and theism are all equally rational positions to take.  Judging from what I said above, how can I say that?  I can because the reports and comments and writings aren’t reliable; they fall well below the water mark for a reliable truth-forming faculty.  This clearly drops the God Hypothesis into the category of belief.  And this leads to the Web of Belief.

W.V. Quine – a staunch naturalist, by the way, so he didn’t invent this to save religion (more to bury it) – introduced the concept of the Web of Belief, which states that what we have are a group of beliefs that hang together like a sort of web.  Some of our beliefs at the lower level justify beliefs higher up and so are more foundational than the higher beliefs, but in general our beliefs all fall into one system of interconnected beliefs.  And then we go out and act in the world according to that system.  If what happens in the world conforms to what we expected, the system as a whole gets confirmed.  If it contradicts it, we have to adjust our system of beliefs until it fits, noting the impact that changing more foundational beliefs might have on the rest of the system.

I submit that what we do and what we should do in discussing questions like Russell’s teapot and God is not assign a probability to the proposition’s likelihood, but simply see how well it fits into what else we already believe.  How well does the new proposition fit in with the existing ones?  We are, of course, far more likely to doubt ones that contradict or, at least, don’t fit in with what we already believe, and far more likely to believe ones that fit in perfectly.  Even Dawkins’ example in Chapter 1 of the Anglican priest reflects that; Dawkins muses that if the person had encountered natural selection before the event he might have taken on Dawkins’ atheism instead of the theism he did take on.  Dawkins is probably right to say that it might have mattered, but it isn’t a matter of probabilities.  In fact, I submit that people who try to fit into the probabilities list that Dawkins espouses basically derive their probabilities from how well the proposition fits in their Web of Belief; for anything that is not known, I don’t expect to hear anyone say “The probability of this thing existing is 20%, but it really fits in with my beliefs so I’ll believe it”.  And this makes sense, since probabilities can only be calculated using the evidence that we currently have; if one expects more evidence later, shouldn’t one expect that the probabilities will change as well?  So why try to assign a number and act on the number?  At least try to act in a manner most consistent with what you already believe.  Ultimately, the evidence we have IS our current set of beliefs, so calculating the probabilities based on that can reflect no more than that.

In short, assigning probabilities doesn’t work for any proposition that we are in any way agnostic about and no one does that anyway.  So the use of probabilities doesn’t seem to get Dawkins any traction in showing that agnosticism has any poverty whatsoever; he would if assigning probabilities was possible in those cases, but since it doesn’t seem to be useful to assign probabilities in most cases his alternative isn’t any better or less controversial.

Now, Dawkins does go through and challenge agnosticism in general, by claiming that “The God Hypothesis” is NOT unknowable in principle, but that it is a scientific hypothesis.  As he says: “ … a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without.  The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice.” [pg 82].  Really?  Then perhaps Dawkins could go ahead and say what those “fundamental” differences are, so that we can go ahead and start looking for them, or know that we can’t look for them?  About the only test that I can think of is to die and see if there’s an afterlife (and, if there is, which God shows up), but I don’t think anyone will call THAT scientifically testable.  The examples he gives are of Jesus being born of a virgin or raising Lazarus from the dead or raising Himself from the dead in the resurrection.  Surely, he insists, we could test these scientifically.  Well, perhaps we could, but so what?  Would proving that, say, Jesus had risen from the dead prove that God exists?  Could we not suspect that Jesus was an alien with the ability to hibernate for three days whose physical structure wasn’t amenable to death by crucifixion, and that the bones left behind were from a passing transient to hide that fact from later generations?  Are those “facts” – that we can’t test now – sufficient to prove the existence of God as a creator?

This problem also infests his comments on “The Great Prayer Experiment”.  So, what that experiment did was get a bunch of people to pray for certain subjects to see if they’d get better.  Here’s the main problem: what could we have said if it worked?  Is it more likely that a God exists, or that people – if they pray hard enough for a person – can through mental ability heal people?  Once you allow for a supernatural God, you have to allow for all sorts of other supernatural explanations as well.  Like aliens.  Or that some people have healing powers.  So how would this prove that God exists?  One can always doubt that any God was involved in it at all.

So, as I said in the introduction, even if God produced a miracle I don’t think that would make me claim that I know that He existed.  Here, I’d have to ask Dawkins to state exactly which miracle he’d find convincing so I can show that it really shouldn’t be thought of as that convincing.

Now, does the fact that the studies didn’t turn up any positive benefit to praying prove that we should at least more strongly doubt the existence of God?  Well, first, that would only apply to people who think that praying, in general, does impact the world.  I’m a very odd theist in admitting that I don’t really think that prayer matters all that much.  But even if one did think that prayer can and does help, I don’t think the studies show anything at all, because of a common mistake that is made in studying anything that is purported to be supernatural: moving into lab tests without properly understanding the conditions under which the phenomena is claimed to naturally exist.

Take precognition.  What is often done to test this is that people are brought into a room and over a period of time asked to predict which light has lit up.  Which, of course, is PRECISELY what they were doing in real-life, right?  Now, of course, it isn’t generally possible to simulate life fully in a lab, and one of the points of lab tests is to filter out some of the noise and get things down to controllable basics.  But the people themselves, generally, have no idea what triggers their ability or how it works.  How do we know that they aren’t really precognitive and that the conditions are too artificial for them to work with?  How do we know that they don’t get tired after prolonged testing and thus are less able to do anything mental, let alone precognition?  Without understanding how the precognition is supposed to work, finding out that it doesn’t work in the artificial lab conditions doesn’t say anything; at best, you can say that you can’t reproduce it under lab conditions.  But we don’t really know if lab conditions map appropriately to natural conditions, and so this doesn’t say anything about whether or not the person is really precognitive.

The same thing applies to the prayer studies: we don’t know under what conditions prayer should work.  Do you have to know the person?  Do you have to be the same faith?  Can it work if you are mechanically praying for someone without really caring about them, if they are nothing more than a name on a piece of paper?  Does one genuine, heart-felt prayer work better than many mechanical ones?  And so on and so forth.  We don’t know enough about prayer “in nature” to make a lab trial that we can know gets all the important things correct, so the studies are pointless in general.  So unless the prayer studies can be shown to really capture all the important points for when prayer is supposed to work, we can’t say anything about what it means that they didn’t show any improvement due to prayer.

One last minor point.  Dawkins says this: “I praised Carl Sagan for disavowing gut feelings about alien life.  But one can (and Sagan did) make a sober assessment of what we would need to know in order to estimate the probability” [pg 95].  Now, here’s basically what I want to say in support of what I’ve said earlier: based on what Dawkins believes, he doesn’t need to estimate the probability, nor should that matter in his deliberations.  Dawkins is, I submit, pretty much forced to believe that aliens DO exist somewhere else in the universe, even if we may never encounter them.  Why?  Because Dawkins holds that intelligent life on this planet basically arose through random processes.  Considering that the universe is huge, one might expect those exact conditions to arise somewhere else in the universe.  We might also expect the conditions to arise that would allow for a completely different form of intelligent life to arise.  So intelligent life – even if improbable – has a ton of chances to get started and get going.  And Dawkins comments on natural selection state that those chances are what allow us to get intelligence without direct agency.

So, now think about what it would mean if we could prove that we are the only intelligent life that exists, has ever existed, and will ever exist in the universe.  This would cast a large degree of doubt that natural selection unaided could, in fact, produce intelligent life; why, if it can do that at random, did it only happen here in all of the universe?  Basically, if Dawkins believes – and I think he thinks he knows – that natural selection “created” us as intelligent beings, then it implies that it almost certainly did that somewhere else as well.  If it only happened here, that would seem a bit too convenient; why were we so blessed, so lucky, and nowhere else in the universe was?

This gets back to my point about calculating probabilities.  It’s pointless to do so here because a) we don’t really know what they are (we’d need more data to determine them) and b) Dawkins’ belief in natural selection pretty much commits him to that if he wishes to be consistent, and insists that even if the probability of life on another planet was low that’s just another probability that natural selection overcomes.  His arguments about what happened here pretty much mean that the probability is irrelevant, because his belief in Darwinism has consequences that make the probability irrelevant.  What need do we have of probabilities when we have the Web of Belief?


Chapter 3 – Argument’s for God’s Existence.

My comments on this chapter should be fairly short, since I don’t think that any of the arguments for God’s existence actually work. But there are two arguments that it’s worth saying something about: “The Ontological Argument” and “The Argument from Personal Experience”.

First, a brief aside about rationalism and empiricism.  Dawkins remarks that his first reaction to “The Ontological Argument” would be to doubt that such an important proposition could be proven without any data from the real world, likely meaning experiences.  He remarks that this may be because he’s a scientist and not a philosopher [pg 107].  However, there are two major competing philosophies that are involved here: rationalism and empiricism.  And both of these have been held by philosophers.

Rationalism, basically, states that there are some important propositions about the world that can be proven without any appeal to the senses or sense experiences at all.  Empiricism states that all important propositions about the world have to, at some point, appeal to experience in their justification.  There’s issues over innate knowledge; while strict empiricists reject innate ideas, it seems that no empiricism can work without at least some ideas about how to use our sense organs.  At any rate, the comment that Dawkins makes is clearly empirical, so he is at least empiricist-leaning.  This is consistent, at least, because science is actually mainly empirical.  It’s brought in some of the good things from rationalism to allow it to doubt experiences; if the experiences can’t rationally be correct (they lead to a contradiction, for example) then we reject the experiences, which naive empiricism cannot do.  And philosophy is strongly empirical, at least currently; it’s strongly naturalistic which leans on empiricism because it leans on science.

But note that if one is rationalistic at all, one accepts that there are some propositions that do not need empirical backing in order to be proven.  So if Dawkins ever wants to claim that he’s a rationalist, he’d have to back down on this criticism.  This isn’t really important, but it gives me a nice opportunity to raise the difference between rationalism and empiricism so that we know what someone has to be claiming if they are a rationalist.  And it’s this examination of rationalism that casts some doubt on my own claim that the Ontological Argument is the wrong sort of argument to prove the existence of God, even though that’s still what I hold; if some propositions can prove things about the world without experience, an argument that doesn’t appeal to experience cannot be ruled out as proving the existence of God in the “real” world.  Of course, I think I can still back out to my actual stance, which is that the proofs and evidence for a proposition must be relevant to the “world” that the proposition is about, but I won’t digress to that any further.  It’s enough to raise the question and point out what rationalism and empiricism actually are; I personally have some work to do on my own understandings.

Another minor note here is about this quote about Zeno’s paradox and why we couldn’t consider the Ontological argument a similar sort of paradox: “The Greeks had a hard time seeing through Zeno’s ‘proof’ that Achilles would never catch the tortoise.  But they had the sense not to conclude that Achilles really would fail to catch the tortoise. Instead, they called it a paradox … Why didn’t he [Russell] exercise the same caution over St Anselm?” [pg 105-106].  Well, see, the paradox was called a paradox because while the mathematics said that Achilles would never catch or pass the tortoise, they knew from observation that he would.  Thus, if the deductive argument was true, then their observations had to be false, but since the mathematics was talking about what one would observe, then the observations not conforming cast doubt on the mathematics.  In short, they actually HAD a paradox: two statements that both seemed to be true and yet both couldn’t be true.  None of this occurred for the Ontological Argument, so of course no one would exercise the same “caution” over it.  The situations are just completely and totally distinct.

Now, a couple of minor points on his disproofs of it: one that he doesn’t give a disproof its proper due, and one that he misses the point of his disproofs of the Ontological Argument.

First, the argument that doesn’t get its due: the argument over whether or not existing is more perfect than not existing.  It gets part of a small paragraph, when there is far more to it than that (one can argue that his citing of Gasking’s argument is meant to go along the same lines, but it is a different sort of argument entirely, as I’ll soon demonstrate).  Basically, the key and best refutation of the idea that a being that exists is more perfect than a being that does not exist is to question whether or not existence is, itself, a quality of an object.  There are good reasons unrelated to the Ontological Argument for thinking that maybe existence doesn’t work as a quality attached to an object.  But for the Ontological Argument to work, it HAS to be the case that existence is a quality that we can say that an entity has or lacks, and then point out that an entity with that quality is better than one that doesn’t.  If existence isn’t an identifiable quality of an entity, the Ontological Argument completely falls apart; there would be no lacking quality that makes God less than perfect if God didn’t exist.  So this is a far stronger reply than Dawkins lets on; if properly done – and it can be done independently of God – it destroys the entire argument.

Additionally, there’s more to even questioning whether or not something that exists is more perfect than something that doesn’t exist than is mentioned here.  Think about it this way: is Santa Claus not as good for not existing as he would be if he really existed?  Are X-wings (from the Star Wars movies) worse because they don’t exist?  I submit that I certainly marvel more at X-wings because they don’t exist than if they did; I don’t find F-18s, for example, anywhere near as impressive in movies as X-wings.  So, in some sense, the domain the things are in will determine whether or not it is better that they exist or not.  For things in an imaginary domain, whether or not they exist is either not relevant or it’s better when they themselves are imaginary; for things in the real domain, it’s better that they be real.  But to say that it is better for God to exist because He’s in the real domain is circular logic; it’s better for God to exist because He should exist.  That’s not valid.  So there’s a lot more to say about existence versus non-existence that isn’t said here, and these are probably the key arguments against the Ontological Argument.

Now, onto Gasking’s reply and Dawkins’ proving that pigs fly.  These sorts of arguments are not meant to show – and don’t work to show – that, as Dawkins puts it “… the existence or non-existence of God is too big a question to be decided by ‘dialectic prestidigitation’ “[pg 108].  Why these sorts of arguments work is that they take the precise same logic of the argument and show that it leads to a ridiculous conclusion, forcing the supporter to either accept the ridiculous conclusion or show how the argument doesn’t work.  But since it has the same form any attempt to show that it is false invalidates the Ontological Argument as well.  So when Dawkins claims that to refute his “pigs can fly” argument “They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic …” [pg 108] he should have followed that up with “thus disproving the Ontological Argument”.  That he doesn’t seems to imply that his adaptation was faulty; if he had adapted it properly, refuting his argument would have refuted the Ontological Argument outright, without any need to talk about the “bigness” of the question.

So, it is clear that Gasking’s argument is meant to set up the situation where he can say “Using the logic of the Ontological Argument, I can prove that God does not exist.  Can you refute my argument without also refuting the Ontological Argument?”.

Well, as it turns out, we can.  Gasking’s argument is basically this: God’s done some pretty impressive things (he uses the example of creating the universe, but the specific example doesn’t matter).  But if something is done by someone who has a handicap, that’s even more impressive.  So something that could do everything God did while suffering from the handicap of not existing would be far more impressive than a God that did them while existing.  Therefore, we can conceive of a greater possible God: one that did all this and doesn’t exist.  So God – the greatest possible being – doesn’t exist.

What should immediately raise alarm bells is that Gasking doesn’t start from the entity itself, but from an event.  As we’ve seen above with the rebuttal about existence not being a quality of the object, the Ontological Argument relies heavily on qualities of the object.  If the quality that Gasking is talking about is more properly assigned to the event, his argument cannot get off the ground, since it doesn’t relate to the entity at all.  He can try to get there by claiming that “impressive” is a quality of the entity and that being more impressive is better than being less impressive, but this has difficulties.  Take this example: I have horrible eyesight.  There are, however, quite impressive things I can do without my glasses.  My doing those things are certainly more impressive without my glasses than with them.  But does that make me better without my glasses than with them?  Let me put it this way: the claim is that the being WITH the disability who overcomes it is better and more perfect than the being that didn’t have that disability in the first place.  This is equivalent to a claim that a car with a defect that still runs is a more perfect car than a car that has no defects at all.  And this is ridiculous: part of being a perfect being is, in fact, HAVING NO DEFECTS.  So even if Gasking would find a less perfect God more impressive, it doesn’t change the fact that that God would be less perfect.  And the Ontological Argument is talking about perfect beings.  So Gasking’s argument doesn’t work because it contradicts itself; he ends up claiming that the more perfect being is the less perfect being.

So this example – and likely Dawkins “pigs fly” attempt – don’t achieve what they need to achieve, since they can be disproven without also taking the Ontological Argument with them.  Better examples such as the “perfect pizza” or “perfect island” work better because it’s MUCH harder to get rid of them without taking the Ontological Argument with them since they more closely follow the logic (applying attributes to entities).  So, you CAN use the logic of the Ontological Argument to prove the existence of things that we don’t think exist, but Dawkins has given no examples of them.

Finally, a brief foray into “The Argument from Personal ‘Experience”.  Dawkins in this basically spends a lot of time pointing out that our senses can, at times, deceive us.  I agree.  However, there is a risk in attack personal experiences of deities and gods solely on the basis that sometimes our senses are wrong.  Recall what I said above about empiricism and about the Web of Belief: a lot of our beliefs are based on empirical knowledge, which is based on sense experiences.  If you don’t like the content of a sense experience, you don’t get to decide that your personal experiences are just plain wrong for no other reason.  It has to be for a direct contradiction; in short, the experience contradicts your Web of Belief to a dramatic degree, or there are other beliefs that support the belief that your experiences are inaccurate here.  If you do allow yourself to drop sense experiences for no reason – call them hallucinations or illusions – simply because you don’t like the content, how do you reply to the charge that perhaps ALL of your experiences are hallucinations or illusions, just ones that are generally consistent?  If one claims that an experience isn’t reliable without being able to say “And here’s why this sense experience isn’t reliable under these conditions”, one undercuts the basis of science and most of our beliefs.  One should not do that willy-nilly.

Now, there are cases where one can doubt sense experiences, and I’d submit that most religious experiences fit into those cases.  They break down into two main categories.  The first are cases where the experience can be said to be true, but the reflection (to steal from John Locke) on those experiences does not necessarily or even strongly lead to the conclusion of “That was an experience of God”.  A warm and fuzzy feeling may be a sign of an emotional connection to God, or that one is under a heating vent (to paraphrase a Dilbert comic.  And being under a heating vent is good, too).  There’s no necessary link between the experience and the conclusion; there are many other things it could be than an experience of God.

The second are cases where the sense experience isn’t necessarily reliable.  If someone is on drugs, one is prone to hallucinations.  If one gets a glimpse out of the corner of one’s eye, that may not be an accurate presentation of what was really there.  If one is emotionally distraught, one is again prone to hallucinations.  If one is sleepy, one may be asleep and dreaming.  If one is dreaming, well, that’s not generally producing real experiences.  And so on.

Most if not all current cases of religious experience fit into these two categories.  But Dawkins has to be very careful in dealing with personal experiences; he doesn’t want to get into a situation where doubting the religious personal experience gives cause to doubt ALL personal experiences, because he’d force the person to either dismiss the vast majority of their beliefs or believe in God.  If Dawkins would try to force the former, he is demanding the irrational and the impossible; no one can function in this world if they constantly doubted their own senses.

This is the risk of challenging personal experiences in any sort of general way.  Someone can indeed point out that the personal experiences of religious people don’t, in and of themselves, prove that God exists, but belief does not require absolute proof.  By reliablism and our beliefs about sense experiences, if I have a sense experience under reliable conditions I think I’m justified in insisting that it’s a real and reliable experience unless I have good reasons to think otherwise, and to challenge that risks removing the basis of science and all empirical knowledge.  Not much would be left if that challenge succeeded.

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