Archive for May, 2010

TGD – Chapter 3

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Chapter 3 of The God Delusion is titled “Arguments for God’s Existence” and is theoretically a point-by-point rebuttal of all the arguments for God. I say theoretically because as with much of the book so far, his ability to stick to a point to its conclusion is amazingly weak and it results in not rounding out any particular point. Furthermore he doesn’t address a number of arguments for God although Dawkins should be given some slack for that because making a comprehensive defense of every attack can unnecessarily bog things down. I get the feeling the meat of his point is not to rebut arguments for God but to make arguments against, and that is planned for future chapters.

In the case of this chapter, he starts off by addressing Thomas Aquinas’ proofs. He manages to explain and retort them, at least to his satisfaction, in 3 pages. Anyone who thinks they can sufficiently explain what Aquinas had to say in 3 pages (mind you this book is formatted similar to a novel, not a textbook) without creating a mere shell (or should I say strawman?) of what Aquinas said, is lying to themselves.

As can be expected from that short of a section, he doesn’t provide a good rebuttal. What is surprising is that he doesn’t even provide a good rebuttal to his overly simplistic summary of Aquinas’ work. His argument is basically that the God Aquinas is arguing for, is not necessarily a “personal” God. Dawkins is right about this, Aquinas’ proofs do not attempt to prove that. But what Dawkins seems oblivious to is the concept of laying a foundation. Once you’ve proven there must be SOME SORT of God, that’s a foundation that the rest can be built upon. Once you know he exists, then you can try to find out more about what He’s like.

But after 3 pages of his 30 page chapter he’s done with all a-posteriori arguments having believed he’s dispatched Aquinas. He then goes on to address a-priori arguments. I’m not a philosopher at heart and neither is Dawkins. He spends about 6 pages flying through a number of philosophically minded arguments from Anselm to Diderot and a number in between, but I get the feeling that Dawkins is as interested in them as I am. He’s a scientist at heart, not a philosopher, as am I.

The next argument he tackles is that of beauty which is not much worth commenting on as it’s really an abstraction of the points Dawkins will make further on.

The next three sections are titled “The Argument from Personal ‘Experience'”, “The Argument from Scripture” and “The Argument from Admired Religious Scientists”. Even though the scripture section is in between the other two, I’m going to address it separately because the other two sections are mirror images of each other.

The first section is entirely about discounting religious experiences and his argument is effectively “the mind can play tricks on you”. Which is no doubt the truth in a number of circumstances. What is remarkable to me is that he turns around in the section on scientists and spends a bunch of time asserting that the vast majority of scientists are atheists, assumably because it disproves God (although he doesn’t say so explicitly). There’s no escaping the basic premise that he’s making: Regular people are dumb and scientists are smart.

So far, if there’s on unifying theme to this book, this is it. Regular people are dumb, the scientific method is infallible, and scientists are the only ones smart enough to see that.

Of particular note in this regard is his addressing of the miracle at Fatima. (A quick side note, I write these posts as I read, and don’t read more until I’ve written all the posts I desire for each chapter. So I didn’t know he’d be addressing Fatima when I wrote of it in my last post on TGD.) While Dawkins admits that it’s harder to “write off” 70,000 people and their shared vision, he still dismisses it. His basic argument is it’s impossible “that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing.”

I’ve met no one nor read any account that’s claimed that’s what happened at Fatima, that the sun and earth left their orbits.

All that is claimed is that it appeared that way. The fact that the sun and the earth actually stayed in their orbit is in fact, a part of the miracle. How did these people come to see this? Science has no answer. They’ve got no theory, much less any proof of a theory, that suggests the incident was a natural occurrence. The best Dawkins can do to refute it is to say the sun and earth remained in its orbit. It’s laughable.

Laugable or not, it’s angering in that he gives people no credit. When he heard a voice whispering to him as a kid, he got up and investigated and determined that it was just an artifact of the wind through his house. Is he so naive to think that when others hear a voice they don’t do the same thing? Apparently. He specifically credits his not being “impressionable” for the reason that whispering voice didn’t fool him.

Does he think those 70,000 people at Fatima wouldn’t consider what possible natural explanations could explain what they saw? Of course they do, but Dawkins just thinks they’re all too “impressionable”, all 70,000 of them, to consider what natural explanations there might be.

Dawkins laughs at the organization in the Vatican who’s job it is to investigate the validity of miracles because he assumes its job is to promote whatever any nutjob tells them is a miracle. What he doesn’t realize is that the fact that the Vatican has such an organization is proof that we DON’T take claims of a miracle lightly. We’ve got a whole organization to make sure the claim is defensible. Many a religious organization has had their hopes crushed when the Vatican has declared this miracle or the other a fake. From the grilled cheese Virgin Mary to at least one of the miracles ascribed to Pope John Paul II, many of the claimed miracles are shot down as being fakes.

But to Dawkins we’re just all dolts who wouldn’t think to question anything while he and his fellow scientists are the noble objective ones who aren’t so “impressionable”.

Moving on, perhaps the tying theme that has Dawkins putting his scripture section in between the personal experience and the scientist section is the “regular people are dumb” argument. In the scripture section he’s back to his bungee jumping in and out of various topics, scoffing all the way along, without spending sufficient time on any to make a point. Between the half truths of a proper understanding of scripture and the misrepresentations of what is actually in scripture, there’s not much in this chapter of note, although I’m sure to the scripturally ignorant it’ll seem convincing. If I have time I’ll make a separate post about these scriptural claims.

I will give Dawkins one thing, in regards to scripture, there are plenty of believers who haven’t read it nor understand how to properly interpret it. I, just like Dawkins, would like them to learn more about scripture so as to not make false assertions about God based on a poor understanding of scripture. He’s right that a lot of people take certain things in scripture as the literal truth when they were never intended as such and any passing understanding of reality makes that interpretation of scripture ludicrous. Nevertheless, that some mishandle the Bible does not prove that the Bible is not valid.

The next to last section of the chapter is about Pascal’s wager, that it’s safer to bet on God than against Him (i.e. if non-believers are right, the religious lose nothing after death, but if believers are right, the non-believers lose everything). Dawkins is right to suggest that it isn’t a proof of anything, and I doubt Pascal would disagree with him. It’s merely a way to encourage people to open their mind to faith. He also spends a fair amount of time suggesting Pascal is asking people to be hypocrites, to pretend to believe, but I think that’s taking too shallow a view of Pascal.

The final section is on some recent attempts to use the same sort of logic in the Drake’s equation to determine whether God exists. Dawkins is right to suggest that the answer that comes out has more to do with the person asking the questions than the questions themselves, but I find it interesting that Dawkins at least appears less critical in the extraterrestrial life case that Drake presents than he seems here. In either case, it’s not an area where either side can put much stock and Dawkins argument is a reasonable one.

Overall the chapter is about what I expected, setting up strawmen and arguing against them. What became most clear to me in this chapter is Dawkins general disgust of regular people as separate from scientists. The mind can play tricks on everyone but the scientists it appears. Whether it be his off hand comments like “admittedly, people of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true.” (as if no scientist have ever mistaken the truth for what they wanted to be true) to his dismissing the testimony of literally billions of people, including people he otherwise admits are smart people, there’s no disguising his disgust.

On to Chapter 4… (perhaps with a detour to rebut his specific scriptural claims before that)

TGD – Why science can never answer the ‘God question’

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

As I mentioned in my Chapter 2 review, Dawkins emphasizes the point that, in his opinion, eventually science will answer the question of whether God exists. He suggests there can only be “temporary agnosticism” because by his way of thinking, science will someday answer every question.

The point of this post is to rebut that idea.

Science is a method of discovery and like all methods it is limited in what it can discover. As Dawkins should well know, the scientific method works by theorems being suggested and then experiments are done to either validate or disprove those theorems. Because of the very nature of that method, the theorem must be falsifiable. Additionally, because of the lack of trust in any one experiment (where some unknown factor could have thrown off the results) the experiments must repeatable in nature.

It’s a great method of discovery as history has shown.

However, it has its limitations. The number one limitation in this realm is its inability to deal with intelligence. By it’s very nature, repeatability ASSUMES that the thing being observed be governed by simple laws. It might be that those laws are compounded upon one another to create what seems complex until it is broken down, but in principle every aspect of the experiment must be dealing with something “mechanical” and unintelligent.

By way of example. If the law of gravity could decide to suspend itself, because it was intelligent and could act on a whim if it so desired, we’d have all these experiments that “disproved” gravity. Gravity didn’t work the way it was supposed to in some instances and therefore, at a minimum, our model of gravity is incomplete. But when a scientist goes to refine that model, they assume yet another simple factor is complicating the situation. Gravity can’t be intelligent and science assumes as much.

God, by His very definition is intelligent. He can not be reduced to simple laws. If he could, he wouldn’t be God, at least in the way just about every notable religion of the world views God. God is intelligent and therefore can not be predicted or reduced to simple laws or theorems.

As such, science can never prove God, it could only disprove it. The best science could ever do regarding the question of God is to answer every possible question about how every single event happened and will happen and therefore show that there is nothing intelligent out there interfering with the laws science has uncovered.

Which is of course exactly the situation Dawkins wants. He wants to use a method that could only possibly come up with the answer he’s hoping for. He also wants, in the mean time while you’re waiting for that “glorious day” when science has disproved every aspect of a intelligent being beyond this world, for you to be “temporarily agnostic” but leaning towards atheist because science has yet to show any evidence for God. Which as I’ve shown, it is incapable of doing.

Coming at the same issue from another perspective, let’s look at a few examples Dawkins uses in the chapter.

He talks about whether Jesus had an earthly father and that it could, in theory, be answered scientifically. Dawkins admits that the necessary scientific evidence doesn’t exist anymore, Jesus having died 2000 years ago and there being no trace of His earthy remains (curious thing, isn’t it? :) ). But let’s pretend for a moment that we had the needed evidence, say a sample of Jesus’s DNA and infinite scientific resources to examine the question. What would we do with it then?

A scientist would suggest, let’s take Jesus’s DNA and match it against every man who could have possibly been Jesus’s father. They’d have to exhume a bunch of dead guys and it would be a massive effort but it could be done. Now, if the genetic analysis came back and said that some guy was his father, that would be a compelling point that the claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin (at least in the genetic sense, which is what we care about in this case) is false.

But what if the research is done an no father can be found, what then?

I can guarantee you that Dawkins answer would not be to concede that Jesus was in fact the son of God. No, there could be other answers. Perhaps we missed some possible candidate father. Perhaps Mary was cloned and then genetically manipulated into a man. And if that didn’t bear any fruit, there would be other possible scientific answers. And if Dawkins ever ran out of experiments he could do, he imagine 30 more that were not possible at this time.

There’s got to be SOME ANSWER!?!

See how it works? He’s created a playing field where only naturalistic answers are accepted because it’s the only type of answer the scientific method can test. Dawkins likely has the same response to the miracle at Fatima that 70,000 people witnesses less than 100 years ago. There is no denying that something happened between the photographic evidence and first hand accounts that can not be dismissed as “legends” or something similar.

I suspect Dawkins will readily admit he doesn’t have the answer, but he’ll continue to look for one. The fact that there is not yet a scientific explanation doesn’t not mean there is not one. And while that’s true as far as it goes, it’s a method that purposely ignores the miraculous answer.

But how are the rest of us to respond to that miracle in the mean time? Science has no answer, but we’ve got 70,000 witness who said it happened. Are we to simply wait around twiddling our thumbs giving science infinite time to do futile experiments? Or would Dawkins admit is it reasonable for us to say that the preponderance of the evidence suggests it’s a miracle? I suspect he would not. To throw Dawkins own words back at him:

Some disprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things.

Dawkins makes the statement above at the end of “The Poverty of Agnosticism” section. He makes the point in regards to God. He’s saying that Just because we can’t disprove God, doesn’t mean that it’s a 50%/50% proposition. Well, he needs to live and die by the same sword then. Who can honestly tell me that the evidence in the Fatima case deserves to be treated equally? Science has no credible retort to what is a well documented miracle. Why are we to keep a naturalistic explanation that hasn’t even yet been proposed, much less tested, on equal ground with what the evidence of those people, both believers and doubters, have brought forward.

To use another example from the book, Dawkins spends a whole section of the chapter talking about the “Great Prayer Experiment”. The experiment attempts to determine whether intercessory prayer works by creating a perfectly valid scientific experiment.

The fact that anyone would attempt the experiment shows that they don’t get the limitation of science to matters for which there is no intelligent being acting upon the experiment. It is trying to either prove over disprove that intercessory prayer either works or doesn’t work in a formulaic sense, i.e. “enough prayers” or “the right prayers” will always result in someone being healed. OK, perhaps the person being prayed for needs to be holy too, or perhaps there are 3 or 4 other criteria, but for the experiment to work EVERY SINGLE one of those criteria must be a formulaic one where some 3rd party intelligence is not responsible for whether the prayers work.

Because if it is about the intelligent being making the decision, statistics and control groups and sample sizes will in no way discover the truth. You can’t do “control group” to deal with God’s intelligent decisions. For an experiment to be valid all of the things being tested require a repeatable, unintelligent set of laws governing the experiment.

Instead, the truth of the matter is that God will decide if anyone gets healed. Sometimes he’ll perform miracles when no one has prayed, sometimes it’ll be when tons of people have prayed. God only knows what the criteria are for when he heals someone (and I mean “God only knows” not in the flippant sense, but quite literally).

To summarize, Dawkins is trying to set a foundation based on science that is so distorted of a playing field, that no team besides his could ever win. Whether it’s because science requires naturalistic/repeatable theorems for the theorem to even be tested or whether it’s because he wants to use the “preponderance of the evidence” when it suits him, but allow science infinite time and resources when the evidence is to the contrary, he’s rigging a game that only he can win. He refuses to accept any evidence besides scientific ones, even when science has no ability to contradict the evidence presented.

The simple truth is that the scientific method is not the only means of discovery or answering a question and Dawkins is trying to fool you into thinking science is the only valid method around. Don’t fall for Dawkins sham.