Posted on Jun 10, 2014 by Tom Gilson
Some time ago the Arizona Atheist critiqued my comments on Richard Dawkins in Chapter 1 of True Reason. I answered him, then he responded in turn, and now it’s my turn again. The point specifically in question is what I had to say about Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.
There is much in AA’s most recent response that puzzles me. For example, he says,
In your chapter, you are clearly responding to Dawkins’ case against god-guided evolution. Your chapter presents an accurate description of Dawkins’ intentions in The Blind Watchmaker. But here, you’re arguing that you agree that Dawkins did successfully argue that point (that there is no evidence of god-guided evolution) and are now claiming Dawkins’ intention was to disprove the very existence of god. But Dawkins nowhere says anything about disproving the very existence of god in the entire book.
This is odd in many ways, one of which (incidentally) is that the Arizona Atheist knows most of the conventions of English usage, yet seems not to be aware that “God” is a proper noun in this context. Oh, well. That’s a frequent enough error; I’ll leave it be, with nothing more than that simple note.
More salient than that were three confused statements AA made in that paragraph. I’ll use those three statements to help organize my response here, though I’ll draw in material from elsewhere to support what I have to say.
Dawkins’ Case Against Design
First, I was not “responding to Dawkins’ case against god-guided evolution.” Yes, Dawkins focuses on his area of specialty, biology, but his case was against design in general. This is evident in the book’s subtitle: “why the evidence … reveals a universe without design.” The book’s first chapter opens by discussing the complexity of living organisms, and moves directly in its second paragraph to, “Biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.” The whole first chapter, which sets the stage for the whole book, is commentary on that.
AA anticipates my response there and writes,
Yes, it’s true that Dawkins’ book only addressed the belief of god-guided evolution, but evolution is Dawkins’ main area of expertise and he wanted to address this specific claim. And this is what he means by “design.” He’s not referring to all design arguments, but only the specific subset dealing with biological design. If someone writes a book with the intention of covering a single topic I think it’s unfair to criticize it for failing to address other related topics.
I don’t know where I made that error in my chapter, although in my more recent response to AA I did say,
Again: suppose evolution happened as he supposes: does that reveal a universe without design? Once you get done with studying evolution, there’s still a whole lot of universe left over! There’s cosmogony, cosmology, fine-tuning, the rationality and explainability of reality, and the full panoply of as-yet-unexplained human characteristics including consciousness, rationality, free will, and worth, which Dawkins didn’t touch in that book (as I recall), and of which no evolutionary account has given an adequate treatment. So in that sense he made a large and fallacious logical leap, too.
I didn’t, however, criticize Dawkins primarily for failing to address other related topics. I criticized him for committing a rather obvious logical fallacy. (This was the whole point of that section of my chapter in True Reason, as well as much of the rest of the book: the fallacious logic so frequently displayed by Dawkins and other New Atheists.) He drew his conclusion — a universe without design — without having demonstrated it. He didn’t even try to demonstrate it, except in one limited set of phenomena, biological evolution.
Had he succeeded in showing design was unnecessary in the case of life, that would have revealed a biosphere without design, not a universe without design. But no, actually, it would only have revealed the scientific and logical possibility of a biosphere without design; which is why I wrote in True Reason that Dawkins disappointed me. He drew the conclusion, there is no design, after arguing a case that could only lead to it is possible there is no design. Alvin Plantinga pointed out the same thing, as I noted in True Reason.
Misreading My Argument
Second, I did not argue that I “agree that Dawkins did successfully argue that point.” What I said was,
So suppose that Dawkins was completely successful in demonstrating that evolution happened as he described. I doubt that he was, but that’s another matter, and for now we can take it for the sake of argument that he did succeed. Suppose he even demonstrated that God was superfluous to the natural history of biological creatures.
That’s a far cry from agreeing that Dawkins was successful!
Did Dawkins Really Intend to Argue Against the Existence of God?
Third, AA denies that Dawkins’ intention was to disprove the existence of God. Now, that ties in with other things AA wrote in his response to me:
You say nothing about the very existence of god in your chapter, which is not even addressed by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, so why you seem to be changing your argument from one purely about god-guided evolution to one about the existence of god confuses me.
He [Dawkins] said nothing of the kind, that there is no god.
Once again, Dawkins wasn’t arguing in that book that god does not exist. He was only discussing god’s alleged role in the evolutionary process.
At this point it’s a challenge for me to maintain decorum; that is, it’s hard not to burst out in laughter. To argue that the universe is without design, while also maintaining that the design argument is “always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of God,” is indeed to argue against the existence of God—whether or not one says, “I am now commencing an argument against the existence of God.”
Let’s see just how Dawkins viewed his arguments in relation to the existence of God. On page 4 of The Blind Watchmaker, in the 1996 edition I’m reading, Dawkins writes,
The watchmaker of my title is borrowed from a famous treatise by the eighteenth-century theologian William Paley. His Natural Theology — or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, published in 1802, is the best-known exposition of the ‘Argument from Design’, always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of God.
Two pages later, he writes,
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: ‘I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.’ I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Dawkins’ argument against design is quite definitely an argument for atheism and against God.
More on “God” or “Belief in God’s Role in Evolution”?
Nevertheless AA thinks Dawkins’ book is only about belief in God’s role in evolution. He quotes the critical passage:
We cannot disprove beliefs like these, especially if it is assumed that God took care that his intervention always closely mimicked what would be expected from evolution by natural selection. All that we can say about such beliefs is, firstly, that they are superfluous and, secondly, that they assume the existence of the main things we want to explain, namely organized complexity.”
And referring to that, he reminds me,
In fact, where you quote Dawkins as saying that “God is “superfluous” he is not referring to god at all, but a certain belief about god’s role in evolution.
I grant his point there, except that (a) through his carelessness in logic and in the wording of his subtitle, among other things, Dawkins made it about design in general, as I already said, and (b) Dawkins believes he is poking a large and irreparable hole in any reason to believe in God.
Now, AA is correct: Dawkins did not say in so many words, “therefore there is no God.” (Dawkins knows English well enough not to have written, “there is no god.”) I’ll accept that critique. It is a distinction without a difference, in my view; and besides that, if this is the best counter-argument anyone can successfully muster against me, I think I can stand the sting of that.
A Question About Divine Simplicity
AA has this question to add to the mix:
I would agree with you that theologians have often described god as simple, but at the same time I’ve never been able to understand how someone can make such strong assertions about the nature of something to which we have no evidence for. What is the basis for this assertion? It is philosophy, theology, the bible? I would be much appreciative if you could answer this for me.
It’s a very good question, and more involved than I can address here. In short, though, its basis is in a philosophical reflection on what God must necessarily be, if God is. That is, if we’re talking about God, then by definition we are talking about God in his ontological simplicity. If we’re talking about some being that is not ontologically simple, then we are not talking about God, but (and maybe AA is right here) maybe about god, some unknown deity that no one here believes in. But I cannot go into this any further here. I will refer you to Edward Feser for more.
And a Question Of My Own About What AA Is Trying To Say
Finally, I admit to being confused over the supposed contradiction AA says he identified in point 2 near the end of his piece. As far as I understand what he says, I think I’ve already addressed it, especially where he says, “”The issue was the argument that god helped to guide the evolutionary process, nothing about arguments for god’s existence. This is my main point of confusion and why I believe you’re contradicting yourself.” That contradiction has been resolved, I believe. If there’s something else there I didn’t catch, I’ll be glad to have it clarified for me so I can address it.