Friday, April 18, 2008

More deep thoughts from Richard Dawkins:
Entities capable of designing anything, whether they be human engineers or interstellar aliens, must be complex -- and therefore, statistically improbable.
Actually, these are the same 'deep' thoughts we've heard before. Bill Vallicella was on the case, but is worth revisiting.

1. The explanandum, that which is to be explained, is organized complexity as such.
2. God is at least as complex as that which is to be explained.
Therefore
3. Any 'explanation' that invokes a supernatural designer explains "precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer." One cannot be said to have explained organized complexity as such if one postulates an unexplained explainer that is at least as complex as any being among the explananda.
4. If the response to the foregoing is that 'God was always there,' then one could just as well say that 'DNA was always there' and be done with the matter.

Now I may be dense, but I cannot see that this is an argument that any theist should lose sleep over.

Why should anyone accept premise (1)? Why should anyone accept that organized complexity as such needs explaining? A plausible principle is that, if x explains y, then x is not identical to y: Nothing explains itself. This is especially clear if the explanation is causal. For it seems self-evident that nothing can cause itself. (I interpret causa sui privatively, not positively: I take it to mean 'not caused by another' and not 'self-caused.') Now if nothing can explain itself, and if organized complexity is to be explained, then some of the organized complexity must remain unexplained, that portion residing in the ultimate explainer. It follows that one cannot reasonably demand that all organized complexity be explained. If this is right, then it is no objection to God to say that his complexity — assuming he is complex — has no explanation. For if one wants an ultimate explanation, then one must accept an entity whose own existence and complexity has no explanation in terms of something distinct from it.

As Bill goes on, this kind of philosophizing makes no impression on fundie materialists. By definition, they simply want to deny, not discuss.

It seems to me that we have a stand-off. We have two diametrically opposed positions each of which is rationally defensible. The theist interprets the order (organized complexity) and existence of nature as deriving from a transcendent mind-like Source, an intelligent, providential ground of finite being and its intelligibility. On this approach it makes no sense to try to explain all being and all organized complexity in terms of simpler and simpler, stupider and stupider, material elements. The theist finds in himself consciousness, self-consciousness, intentionality, purposiveness, moral awareness, aesthetic sensitivity, etc., and he cannot for the life of him understand how any of this can be made sense of in material terms. So he interprets what he finds in himself as a key to the ultimate makeup of the world. The naturalist, of course, adopting a ruthlessly third-personal point of view, will have none of this. For him, there is no explanation apart from materialist explanation, and what cannot be reduced to this form of explanation must be simply denied. [emphasis mine]

But on the other hand, since Dawkins keeps repeating the same point over and over again, maybe discussion is possible.

Some day.

4 comments:

Deuce said...

Hey, John, thanks for bringing this up again!

I have to think that Dawkins doesn't read anything critical of himself, because this particular argument of his has been demolished over and over. And by that I don't mean that it's been persuasively argued against, but that it's been shown to be a flat-out wrong logical mess.

The actual point where he goes off the tracks is where he says that complex entities must be improbable. That seems to be some meme he picked up and repeated from probability theory without conceptually grasping it.

Strictly speaking, entities aren't probable or improbable. They just are. It's events that are probable or improbable.

When we say that an entity is improbable, it's actually shorthand for saying that the event of that type of entity coming into existence by chance is improbable.

Of course, in general, the more complex a pattern the entity displays, the more improbable the event of that type of entity coming into existence is. This commonsense principle is why, for instance, a straight flush is worth more than a pair in poker.

But, it should be clear, this only applies to contingent, physical entities. It makes no sense when referring to abstract entities or necessary beings. "How probable is the number 3?" is a meaningless sentence.

So, when Dawkins says that God is "improbable", the implicit premise, without which the claim doesn't even make sense, is that "God" is a contingent physical being, like a giant cosmic computer or something, who is unlikely to come into existence by chance.

Of course, this is preposterous, and theists obviously aren't arguing for some kind of uber robot that randomly popped into being and then made everything else. It shows that Dawkins has totally misconceived the idea of God.

My guess is, he's so thoroughly stuck his mind in a materialistic, contingent mode of thinking, that he has difficulty even conceiving things outside that mode of thinking, and so is unable to even address the theistic position on its own terms.

John Farrell said...

So, when Dawkins says that God is "improbable", the implicit premise, without which the claim doesn't even make sense, is that "God" is a contingent physical being, like a giant cosmic computer or something, who is unlikely to come into existence by chance.

Exactly. Of course when you point this out, it gets ridiculed as 'typical' of theists who posit things that can't be quantified or identified in material terms, so it's simply dismissed.

This also explains, I think, why his chapter on Anselm and Aquinas is particularly dismal. If he actually considered what Anselm really meant (i.e., that God is either a. non-contingent or b. non-existent), then his whole probability BS goes out the window and he has to come up with a different argument.

Darwin said...

The fact that Dawkins and various fellow travelers routinely dig out the, "Well if you say God created the world, that still doesn't explain who created God," argument is one of the clearest signs that he wouldn't know philosophy if it bit him in the rear. The very idea of the distinction between contingent and non-contingent being seems lost on him. At which point, no wonder he doesn't get what Aquinas and Anselm were getting at.

John Farrell said...

BTW, today (April 21st) is officially Anselm Day, according to the redoubtable Siris.