Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Dawkins Got Wrong

Last week I finally presented my talk on "What Dawkins Got Wrong" to the UWA Atheist and Agnostic Society, which was previously postponed due to my broken ankle. The talk was derived mainly from Wielenberg's paper titled "Dawkins's Gambit, Hume's Aroma, and God's Simplicity".

Previously I agreed with Dawkin's central argument in his book "The God Delusion" as I shared a similar, heavily scientific world-view. As time has gone and I've read a lot more in philosophy, I now no longer believe that Dawkin's presented the best possible case for atheism, which, in my opinion, is a shame. After I read the paper by Wielenberg, I agreed with the critics of Dawkins who argue that Dawkins attacks an almost straw-man like God.

My intention in giving the talk was to open people up to a different way of thinking and I can't say I succeeded in this task. I learned that not everyone shares an appreciation of philosophy and it was difficult to remember back to the time when I agreed with the masses. I wasn't able to elucidate the reasons why I changed my mind - at least not convincingly in my opinion.

Many of the counter-objections I faced were similar in nature to a discussion at Common Sense Atheism, which also provided another source for my case against Dawkins.

It's perhaps too harsh to suggest that Dawkins got things wrong (sensational headlines usually attract audiences), but he didn't present the best arguments as to why one should be an atheist, which of course gives his critics and detractors plenty of room to manoeuvre. It's also a particularly pernicious aspect of Dawkins argumentative style that he tends to over state his case. (Yes, my irony detector is buzzing like crazy)


Kel said...

I'm with those who actually think Dawkins' argument has merit. Calling God immaterial and only talking about material complexity doesn't actually address the core of Dawkins' objection. How is it someone can talk about thought without a "thinking" mechanism under it? What we know of minds is that minds are emergent properties of brains. What we attribute to God we only know of as being a product of physical complexity. To say that there's such thing as a superhuman is as Dawkins puts it "God tries to have his free lunch and be it too".

How is it that a supernatural immaterial being can have the attributes if finite contingent beings? It's just that people define God in an anthropomorphic sense and suddenly all objections regarding the contingent nature of our attributes are whisked away under the label of "scientism". Surely it's a fair question to ask how a being can possibly have the attributes that have come to us through the evolutionary process, yet by doing so it's apparently misrepresenting what God is.

Reasonably Aaron said...

"How is it someone can talk about thought without a "thinking" mechanism under it?"

Although I am in 100% agreement with you here, we are in the minority, both in modern times and historically. There is tremendous intuitive appeal to the notion that the I is different to the brain - that we are more than just physical.

God in this sense is an invisible super-human. (Which is why imagery of God is usually human in nature)

In "Religion Explained", Pascal Boyer shows how ideas such as an invisible human (so called minimally intuitive beings) have a greater chance to be remembered and passed on rather than normal or convoluted stories. Oh how I wish Dawkins covered these concepts...Put together with Dawkins style of prose, it would have been (in my opinion) a stronger atheistic argument.

Dawkins, in my opinion, is attacking this folk-theological God instead of dealing with more so-called sophisticated ideas. Now before you throw the Courtiers Reply at me, this would be no different to a creationist debunking evolution by appealing to folk-biological notions and claiming degrees in evolution are no more useful than degrees in invisible silkware.

I'm not for one instant claiming that there is any substance in these so-called sophisticated ideas - far from it, but it would have been nice for Dawkins not to pick old and fragile arguments and wave them away while subtly admitting that he at least takes them seriously enough to evaluate.

Kel said...

This is where I think Dawkins' argument gets misrepresented, after The Ultimate 747 the next section (which is over twice as long) is Natural Selection As A Consciousness Raiser. The argument so much isn't that the classic conception of God is wrong, that what the theists describe as God is something we can actually quantify.

Unfortunately like you point out, this doesn't actually address those "sophisticated" conceptions of God, which just means his criticisms can be waived away without too much thought. In that respect, yes he failed. If you watched his discussion with Alistair McGrath (it's on youtube if you haven't) he showed that he understood those who say that God is simple but expressed bemusement as to how that could possibly be the case.

I think there's two things going on. The first is that Dawkins' argument is not actually taken on board to what it signifies - that is those traits ascribed to God have emerged through the evolutionary process so to ascribe them to God makes God necessarily complex. The second is that because he's using such an argument to dismiss the God Hypothesis, it leaves open the possibility to reject his argument as failing to capture what God is.

As for The Courtier's Reply, I think the concept can only apply in particular place. As Massimo Pigliucci puts it in Nonsense On Stilts: "How is it even possible to become an expert in nonsense?" The Courtier's Reply is a fallacy of relevance. Take astrology for example. While I may not know anything about the internal workings of the discipline, my reasons for rejecting it are because those internal workings are not relevant to the validity of it. The only relevant things are the plausible mechanism and empirical data. Both of these in the case of astrology are negative, so why does anyone need to understand birth charts to dismiss it? In the case of evolutionary theory, it's internal workings are tied to the mechanisms and data.

Kel said...

I ended up expanding a bit on what I wrote in an earlier comment.