Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Richard Dawkins Illusion

This is an old post that once was lost but now is found.

[Original date: 12 March 2007]

Reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, you can’t help but conclude that Dawkins has a terrible bee in his bonnet when it comes to religion. I was looking forward to reading this book, as Dawkins is an intelligent scientist and a talented writer, but in the end I came away disappointed, to say the least, and not at all convinced.

As the New York Times aptly stated, reading this book feels akin to watching a Michael Moore film. The God Delusion can be summed up as an unrelenting barrage of anecdotes, examples, arguments, lists and stories intended to prove once and for all that God does not exist and that religion itself is, more or less, utterly evil. However, (and I’m more or less of an atheist myself), I don’t know of a single Christian who has come to their faith simply by way of argument or being convinced by examples. To that extent, what this book suffers from most is a reliance on exemplification which at times almost feels obsessive. Below the surface assault of examples and anecdotes, there’s a feeling of extreme frustration, almost desperation that Dawkins conveys with regard to religion.
The problem with exemplification is that it tends to generalization and converse fallacy of accident. Particular examples are not necessarily identical to the general points they are supposed to demonstrate, at best they are textual interpretations of instances or events which may or may not have actually occurred. To this end, it is of some concern that on more than one occasion Dawkins seems to rely on hearsay to support a point. On pages 238, 239, Dawkins refers to the story of US evangelist Pat Robertson blaming Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans on the fact of God’s displeasure that Ellen de Generis (a lesbian) lived in New Orleans (p. 239). Dawkins states in a footnote that it is unclear whether the story is true or not but it doesn’t matter, because people believe it’s true. Which is a rather strange thing to say in a book which attempts to argue that belief must submit itself to scientific truth. Wouldn’t that be rather like arguing that it doesn’t matter whether God exists or not, because lots of people believe he does?
In any case, you can prove anything you like by using examples. Do we live on a flat Earth around which the sun revolves? Sure we do, just look out your window. For example.
Proving that faith is evil or that God does not exist requires a lot more than shooting a barrage of individual anecdotes and arguments through a slit to see whether the emerging pattern is like that conforming to the behaviour of a wave or a particle. Dawkins’ approach comes across like that of the postmodernist (a comparison I’m sure he would not appreciate): it’s all surface analysis, dehistoricized, decontextualized, and deferring deeper questions of epistemology.
Indeed, this is another big problem with the book. Dawkins is hellbent on undermining the epistemology of faith, but takes his own epistemology: that of the scientific method, entirely for granted. Not for a moment is there any question that scientific truth, is, if not equivalent due to its incompleteness, then definitely on the road to Ultimate Truth. Notwithstanding, Dawkins is in fact strongest when he writes as a scientist about his own areas of expertise, those to do with science. His explanations of the power of natural selection to account for how life came to be so incredibly complex and diverse without needing to invoke instantaneous creation by a God casting magic spells form the most convincing part of the book. This forms the first part of Chapter 4, rather presumptuously titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”, and you can tell Dawkins is definitely on home ground here.
This follows on from Chapter 3, in which Dawkins refutes various logical arguments for God’s existence. This chapter also reads well, but it’s covering old ground really. I don’t know anyone (except the most dedicated Catholic dogmatist perhaps) who still tries to argue that God exists by means of logical arguments. Dawkins also mentions the problem of evil, listing a number of unonvincing arguments, such as that evil is supposed to make us nicer people by teaching us patience and forbearance, or that evil is the result of a cosmic battle between God and Satan, the winner of which hasn’t quite yet been decided. Unfortunately though, Dawkins throws out the most sophisticated argument for the existence of evil along with the bathwater: that the knowledge of good and evil, and the capacity to choose between one or the other is a necessary outcome of being created as conscious agents with free will. This practice of throwing the really good arguments out with the banal is a typical ploy of his in this book, and a frustrating one for those who grapple in a deeper way with such questions, and symptomatic of the kind of postmodern “surface analysis” I referred to before.
The second part of Chapter 4 attempts to extend the natural selection argument to the sphere of cosmology. The basis of Dawkins argument that there almost certainly is no God, is that if God exists he must be incredibly complex, much more complex than the Universe he created, and that therefore arguing that God must exist because the Universe is so complex and intricate does not explain anything because you just move the problem one step backwards. Having explained the universe by means of a complex God, you then need to explain how this complex God came into being. As I mentioned, to account for the origin and complexity of life on Earth, Dawkins argues natural selection is a much better and more convincing tool than invoking God. And as I said, Dawkins sounds most plausible writing in the field he knows most about. He repeats the crucial point that life on Earth did not evolve by time + pure chance, as many Creationists refuting the theory of Evolution claim, but that natural selection directs life towards greater and greater complexity. And it sounds convincing.
When he tries to explain the existence of the Universe itself though, invoking the Anthropic Principle, he already becomes much less convincing. The Anthropic Principle does make sense, up to a point. Its scope is limited though. No matter how rationally put, it seems to me little more than an ingenious tautology. But a tautology by any other name… 
The Anthropic Principle argues, “However it came to be, life must have evolved on Earth because we are here to talk about it”. No matter how eloquently stated, I cannot shake the suspicion that this is akin to saying “a duck is a duck”. To actually explain anything, you are then obliged to argue the relative probability (which Dawkins attempts to do) of life being created by God versus life spontaneously appearing and then evolving by means of natural selection. As I said, the argument for natural selection is quite strong and convincing compared to that of God magically creating everything on Earth in seven days. But when it comes to accounting for the Universe itself, Dawkins falls back on speculative cosmological theories invoking the Metaverse (the speculation in String Theory that our Universe is just one of an uncountable number of universes existing in some kind of “metaverse”) to support the Anthropic Principle: our Universe just happens to be a viable one in an uncountable number of nonviable universes, and because it is so it supports the evolution of complex life-forms and if it were not so we wouldn’t be here to talk about it.
Indeed, Dawkins cautions that the idea of the Metaverse “is hated by most physicists. I can’t understand why” (145). One reason is that the Metaverse is an inefficient and complex means by which to explain the complexity of our own and is at risk of violating Occam’s razor. The more worrying one is that the existence of other universes is simply out of the reach of observable evidence: information simply can not flow between universes without breaking all the known laws of Physics, so we will never know for sure whether or not if this Metaverse really exists or not. Which makes the idea of a Metaverse sound rather like the idea of God which Dawkins is at such pains to discredit, just an impersonal and passive one. Unfortunately this is where Dawkins more or less ends the chapter on why there almost certainly is no God, by arguing for a Metaverse instead (with the qualification that it is just a “hypothesis”, but then Dawkins worrisomely qualifies many of his arguments in this way, then going on to make them anyway as if they’re quite plausible really.)
The second part of the book is unfortunately not nearly as interesting as the first. Dawkins begins by arguing how religion and morality came to exist in a world governed by the laws of evolution. His ideas are basically grounded in those of memes and genes. I won’t go into them here, you can read them for yourself. The main problem with his argument and his biggest blind spot in the book is that by explaining the existence of religion and morality by means of science, the whole thrust of his book: that religion and faith are inherently evil, seems to be totally undermined. If religion and morality are the result of impersonal, ultimately biological evolutionary processes then I utterly fail to see how Dawkins can be so vehemently against religion. It would seem rather like being vehemently against animals of prey ruthlessly killing weaker animals. It might feel rather unpleasant and nasty to some that, say, big cats tend to brutally kill bovidae to survive, but this is just an outcome of genetic selection. No one in their right mind would call lions and tigers “evil” for doing so, and if religion is just an outcome of memetic selection I fail to see how religion can be accused of being any more or less evil. Following Dawkin’s line it’s at best just an example of a successfully evolved meme.
The chapter on the roots of morality is, for me, the weakest chapter in the book. In his case study in the roots of morality (222-226) Dawkins severely risks falling into equivocation and amphibology when using our capacity for language as a simile for our capacity for morality. On page 223, he invokes the (disputed) theory of Universal Grammar, whereby morality is built into our brains just like the “underlying deep structure of grammar is universal” because it is built into our brains. At best one might argue that the deep function of grammar is universal, and this is rather different than a deep structure. This is beside the point though.
The equivocation comes a little later when Dawkins quotes Hauser saying that “Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind…the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness” (223). Now, as linguists will tell you, the structure (or function) of grammar is not at all identical with a particular grammar itself, and confusing the structure of grammar with grammar itself by then referring to a hypothetical “moral grammar” is not what I would expect from a writer such as Dawkins whose whole premise is the supremacy of science, logic and rationality to explain the world around us. To extend the argument to its end, any particular “moral grammar” might be totally different from any other, even opposite (if taken seriously, you might speculate a “moral grammar” in which evil is a virtue for example), without invalidating the idea of a “universal structure of morality”. As Dawkins is rather trying to argue that we are all good at heart though, he seriously slips up here. I happened to pick up on this because I happen to know a fair bit about linguistics, but it makes me wonder where else Dawkins makes such blatant errors in argument in areas I don’t know so much about.
Dawkins then comments on the argument that if there is no God to make them there can be no moral absolutes to derive. Strangely though he leaves the argument unsatisfactorily hanging, drawing out the differences between absolutists and consequentialists and then stating that “the preferred source of absolute morality is usually a holy book of some kind…” (233). That’s OK, but it doesn’t tell me anything new at all and seems only put there to deflect the original question: What to do in a world without God in which we can transcend our evolutionary instincts and in which we are conscious to choose between good and evil. At least Sartre was brutally honest when he said that in the end, it really doesn’t matter if you choose to run over the old lady crossing the street. Without absolutes and an arbiter to enforce them, the most you can say is that any act is “authentic”.
Dawkins’ idea of God seems very narrow-minded, and from this point on the book descends into setting out to demonstrate how nasty, evil, hateful, vengeful, jealous, callous and vicious the God of the Bible is. He does this by citing example after example after example from the Old Testament of stories which prove how utterly debased and depraved Biblical morality is and what a dirty old man God is. The problem is not so much that these stories exist and that any well-read Christian knows them (without drawing general moral conclusions from them), the problem is that Dawkins’ misguided exemplification comes to the fore here. He focusses, by examples, exclusively on the nastiness in the Old Testament and totally ignores the positive aspects of Old Testament religion. I’m not going to refute by giving counter-examples, you can read the Old Testament for yourself and make up your own mind, suffice to give one verse from it: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
He then goes on to say the New Testament, while an improvement, wasn’t that much better. Dawkins provides various arguments for this, none of which hold much water. He says that Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbour was only intended for fellow Jews and argues that Jesus was a devotee of in-group morality and would be turning in his proverbial grave if he knew about Paul going and preaching to the Gentiles, citing a paper by John Hartung to back up his claim. This is just plain not true. Dawkins seems to know his Bible pretty well, so it surprises me that he would ignore the verses of the Great Commission where Jesus pretty clearly said: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes in me will be saved…” (Mark 16:15-16). These hardly sound like the words of a devotee of in-group morality to me. Dawkins seems to get almost hysterical when discussing the meaning of Jesus’ death and atonement for sins. I quote: “I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent” (253). Personally, whatever I might think about the atonement, I find such language bordering on the offensive and hardly exemplary of someone who purports to be a rational, reasoned, level-headed scientist.

The rest of the book is mainly devoted to numerous anecdotes and examples of how evil and hateful Christians and Moslems really are, mainly by referring to acts of extremists of fundamental Christianity and Islam. While I don’t deny there some totally indefensible and horrific acts are committed by followers of religion, such acts are certainly not exclusive to religion as Dawkins on more than one occasion wishes us to believe. I can’t find it right now, but in the chapter “What’s Wrong With Religion”, analyzing conflicts caused by religion and the phenomenon of suicide bombings and terrorism, Dawkins claims that never a war was fought in the name of atheism. This may well be true, but it seems a matter of semantics to me, and it totally neglects the fact that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Christians (and followers of other religions and beliefs) have been oppressed, tortured and killed in the name of socialism, which, like it or not, is officially an atheistic institution.
Besides I have yet to meet a Christian (and I’ve met lots of them) who actually supports things like blowing up abortion clinics or decapitating homosexuals. They’re just not that common and I get the feeling Dawkins has made way too much of the far-right fundamentalist movement. By far the majority of Christians I’ve personally met are in fact good, loving, honest, sincere people struggling with the mundane issues of life just like the rest of us.
Once again, I could go on and on, but beyond this there is not much left of the book really. It descends into a totally unconvincing argument that religion is a form of child abuse and…well…you get the drift.
To cut it short, from someone as intelligent and usually entertaining as Dawkins, this book is a really big disappointment.

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