Friday, 9 September 2011

Dawkins’ ‘unanswerable’ argument: intellect and imagination

The noise about the question of whether or not Richard Dawkins will debate William Lane Craig this autumn has gotten me thinking about what sort of arguments Dawkins might use if he does show up.  Will he repeat his Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit from The God Delusion?  If so, he had better have taken notice of the many criticisms of this argument – which Dawkins himself called ‘unanswerable’ at the time – since The God Delusion was published.  The following comes from Thomas Nagel’s review of the book, which is very balanced and well worth reading in its entirety even if its formatting has somehow gone haywire on the New Republic website.

Let me first say something about this negative argument. It depends, I believe, on a misunderstanding of the conclusion of the argument from design, in its traditional sense as an argument for the existence of God. If the argument is supposed to show that a supremely adept and intelligent natural being, with a super-body and a super-brain, is responsible for the design and the creation of life on earth, then of course this "explanation" is no advance on the phenomenon to be explained: if the existence of plants, animals, and people requires explanation, then the existence of such a super-being would require explanation for exactly the same reason. But if we consider what that reason is, we will see that it does not apply to the God hypothesis.

The reason that we are led to the hypothesis of a designer by considering both the watch and the eye is that these are complex physical structures that carry out a complex function, and we cannot see how they could have come into existence out of unorganized matter purely on the basis of the purposeless laws of physics. For the elements of which they are composed to have come together in just this finely tuned way purely as a result of physical and chemical laws would have been such an improbable fluke that we can regard it in effect as impossible: the hypothesis of chance can be ruled out. But God, whatever he may be, is not a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is not what anybody means by God. If the God hypothesis makes sense at all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them.

All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is a disagreement over whether this end point is physical, extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God, and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics. [...]

I agree with Dawkins that the issue of design versus purely physical causation is a scientific question. He is correct to dismiss Stephen Jay Gould's position that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria." The conflict is real. But although I am as much of an outsider to religion as he is, I believe it is much more difficult to settle the question than he thinks.

My feeling is that Nagel has definitely hit on something here.  Dawkins really seems to think that when Christians (for example) talk about God they mean a ‘supremely adept and intelligent natural being, with a super-body and a super-brain’, rather than ‘a mental, purposive, or intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of physics, because it explains even them’.  Perhaps he doesn’t even understand the latter, and can’t bring himself to imagine how it could be that ‘not all explanation is physical’.  This reflects something that a former pastor of mine has said:

unbelief too often arises not from an informed awareness of the evidence, but from a completely closed imagination that cannot conceive of the universe having the added Godward dimension, and so is incapable of giving the matter serious consideration

Pete Lowman’s article is an exploration of how C.S. Lewis sought to combat this by giving his reader a ‘baptism of the imagination’.


Ilíon said...

Then again, one can just bite the bullet and admit that Dawkins' problem is that he is intellectually dishonest.

Moreover, he admits it.

mattghg said...

No doubt that plays a role; I mean, the 'reasons' he gives for not debating William Lane Craig are BS. But with respect to this particular point I think he somehow just doesn't get it.

Ilíon said...

Sure; but while "So-and-So doesn't get it" verbally implies that the "not getting it" is an innocent thing, due to a current lack of understanding of some logically prior point, it can also logically imply that the "not getting it" is due to a disinclination or refusal to "get it".

And, in Dawkins' case, he "doesn't get it" because he doesn't *want* to get it; he refuses to understand the subject matter he wishes to dispute-via-ridicule.

mattghg said...

I agree that Dawkins is not innocent in not getting it. He gives the impression of having made up his mind once for all, a long time ago, that atheism is right and cannot bring himself to consider the possibility that he might be wrong.