TGD – Chapter 3

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)

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