The Dawkins Disappointment

Wanting to read Richard Dawkins’ latest book The God Delusion but being too cheap to purchase a copy, I am on a waiting list at the local library. In the meantime, I discovered Dawkins’ website, RichardDawkins.net, where he’s posted (among other things) the first chapter of the book. However, I’m not sure this was a wise thing for Dawkins to have done; as Simon Cowell would say, “that’s just not good enough.”

From Dawkins’ website, it would seem that he’s given up on science in favor of a full-on assault on religion (however, I have to admit that the Mr. Deity clips are hilarious). This doesn’t seem to be a good move for Dawkins, as he apparently was at one time a gifted science writer. He doesn’t seem to know or understand enough about religion of any kind to speak about it with any authority; not liking it is not enough.

The first chapter spends a lot of time proving that Einstein and Stephen Hawking were not religious; I don’t doubt this at all, and I’ll give him Carl Sagan and Gould as well. He seems to be trying to lay a case that “great” (to use his word) scientists know how to be in awe of creation (or nature, if you prefer) and avoid falling into some kind of religious nonsense. He fails to mention the scores of “great” scientists who are people of faith. What is clear is that he seems repulsed by the term “religious,” although to be honest, he presents himself as a very religious naturalist.

Dawkins seems to have a misconception about both “the religious mind” (which he characterized as weak) and religion itself. Whether he believes this or not, he at least presents flawed logic in using the example of a couple of unknown Christians to represent a larger mindset. This is like me using the ramblings of some high school science teacher to represent the “scientific mind.”

He is, however, straightforward in stating that underlying his view of science is philosophical naturalism; that is, the presumption that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world.” He is undoubtedly trying to distance himself and his philosophy from “religion,” although I don’t think it is working. It sounds as though he would agree with Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria,” which is a flawed concept but another topic. Whether he likes it or not, Dawkins comes across as a religious zealot defending his faith in naturalism, and in the process resorting to the same types of flawed logic as those he is criticizing.

Overall, I was greatly disappointed in this first chapter. I still plan to read the rest of the book, but my expectations have been certainly lowered.

The Dawkins Delusion

Let me start off by making it clear that I have not yet read Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion, but as I’ve said before I’d like to, especially if someone wants to give me a copy. (My favorite books are usually those I haven’t had to pay for.)

However, Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has read the book, and has written a fairly lengthy critique for Books and Culture entitled The Dawkins Confusion, Naturalism ad absurdum. While Plantigna calls Dawkins “an extremely gifted science writer,” he points out that there is very little science in the book, but rather is mostly “philosophy and theology … and evolutionary psychology.” Plantinga’s critique, therefore, is fitting, as he discusses the philosophical problems with Dawkins’ book. I won’t rehash Plantinga’s article, but rather suggest that you check it out for yourself.

Lately, inspired by blog discussions with friends and my current reading (most notably, Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages), I’ve been thinking about the role of science in the bigger picture. While in its early stages science may have been a means of finding truth, the current philosophy of science no longer has such lofty goals. Rather, with modern science it seems that there are no final answers to be found. Religion, too, has its mysteries; as Paul wrote that at present we see in part, although some absolute truth is obviously claimed and the knowledge of truth is the point. Philosophy, too, seeks after truth in its own way, at least it seeks an appropriate way (if not the “true” way) to view the world.

A question that I have, however, is whether science can ever truly be free from philosophy, or if it should be. To limit true science to merely a methodology for finding out how things work is fine; in fact, that clearly expresses its limitations and really leaves the issues of what the findings mean to other disciplines. However, I doubt that many (if not the majority) of scientists would be satisfied, or comfortable, with that. The “origins” debate is a good case in point.

Science often moves into the areas of philosophy, and in my mind should; for each scientific finding begs questions, and often philosophical questions. This is the case especially with the cutting-edge areas of physics and those in search of a unified theory of everything. Quantum mechanics, chaos theory, dark energy, superstring theory, and so on, all raise very interesting philosophical questions.

A problem, however, seems to be that there are very few people capable of competently discussing both the hard science and the philosophical issues. Critical thinking is among those skills which are not automatically transferable from one discipline to another. A brilliant physicist or biologist may think completely illogically when it comes to philosophy or religion (or another scientific discipline). On the other hand, a brilliant logician may not accurately reason a scientific issue through.

It seems that in order for a meaningful dialog between disciplines to take place, there has to be some understanding as to the limitations of the respective disciplines and the difficulties of transferring arguments from one discipline to another. On the other hand, where’s the fun in that?

It would seem, based on Plantinga’s analysis of Dawkins’ philosophical arguments, that Dawkins may not be one of those individuals capable of bridging the current science-philosophy gap.

The real failed hypothesis

The other day I was wandering around my local Borders store, and ran across a book on the New Releases table entitled, God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger, a man who seems to have taken on a crusade against the notion that science is proving (or has proved) the existence of God, particularly the Christian version of God.

Now, straight off I need to say that I haven’t had a chance to read this book, even though I am going to comment on its concept taken from its own promotional blurbs, which I presume to be accurate. (I should also state that instead of this book, I chose Bruce Feiler’s “Where God Was Born.”) I’d actually like to read this book, but I don’t have the time or money to invest in it right now. However, if someone feels inclined to buy it for me, I promise I’ll read it the first chance I get. (The same goes for Dawkins The God Delusion or even Sam Harris’ stuff.)

The publisher’s blurb for the book states:

Physicist Victor J. Stenger contends that, if God exists, some evidence for this existence should be detectable by scientific means, especially considering the central role that God is alleged to play in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans. … After evaluating all the scientific evidence, Stenger concludes that beyond a reasonable doubt the universe and life appear exactly as we might expect if there were no God.

Assuming, as I said, that this is an accurate representation of Stenger’s hypothesis, then one really doesn’t have to read the book to discover its primary error; it would seem, rather than disproving the hypothesis that science can offer proof of God’s existence, he has only proved that his own hypothesis, that science can prove the opposite, has failed. It would seem that in taking on such a task, Stenger has come to a Gödellian impasse. One of Stenger’s problems can be seen at the outset: what if his hypothesis that evidence for God can be detectable by scientific means is either not true, or is unprovable? His conclusion, then, can only be trusted if you accept the same set of presuppositions as Stenger bases his argument on; in which case you have no proof of anything at all.

It remains to be seen whether Stenger’s argument is consistent (I would actually have to read the book to comment on this). Even so, it only proves a consistent system, not that it accurately represents truth. Again, if the presuppositions are incorrect, all you have is a consistent work of fiction.

Stenger is seems to be taking on a de facto exercise in fallacious reasoning when he is attempting to address the truth of one system (that is, theology) from within his own system. Brian Bosse, in his discussion on The Nature of Argumentation (Part 3), states:

I can’t stress enough the importance of arguing independently of your system for your system. Most arguments between systems are not made independently of the system. That is, most arguments assume their system upfront, and commit this most basic fallacy.

Now, Stenger may have some points to make with regard to others who attempt to disprove science from within a theological framework, or who put forth inconsistent arguments for the existence of God; I have just as much of a problem with bad Christian logic as I do with bad scientific logic.

However, there is one other consideration: What if everything we see as science – even (gasp!) evolution – is the work of God? Assuming that God is outside of the system He created, He would not be subject to the cause and effect nature of creation, and so therefore not provable from within the system. However, this could provide the basis for all those others – such as Francis S. Collins, who wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief – who look at the same facts, but see God displayed there.

Faith, anyone?