Monday, October 1, 2007

Dawkins' Ultimate Argument

As regular readers know, there was a group of us from Antioch reading together through and critiquing Richard Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion. Last evening, we finally put it to bed with a discussion of chapter 4, in which Dawkins presents what he feels to be his most powerful argument against the existence of God.

Dawkins calls this argument "the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit." He's playing off of a quote by astronomer Fred Hoyle that the probability of life originating on earth (by purely natural means) is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, could assemble a Boeing 747. So just what is Dawkins' response? What is his most powerful argument?

He says, in effect, that however improbable the apparent design of this universe or of the life therein, the existence of a Designer must therefore be that much more improbable. In other words, the greatest argument this respected biologist and defender of evolution can come up with is,
If God made the universe, who made God?
This is not sophomoric reasoning--it's childish. It is undoubtedly this--Dawkins' most crucial chapter and argument--that led fellow atheist (but a true philosopher) Michael Ruse to write,
The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.
By advancing this utterly naive argument, Dawkins displays a complete ignorance of the centuries-long debate among far better thinkers than he about the answers to the questions about why the universe and life exist. Dawkins believes--as he could not if he'd ever read anything on this issue--that God as Designer somehow exacerbates the problem of the infinite regress. The conclusion of philosophers throughout history is that the existence of God--and specifically the eternal and transcendent God proclaimed by the Bible--uniquely solves the problem of the infinite regression (of causes).

To be specific, philosophers debating these issues distinguish between contingent (caused) things (like universes) and necessary things, of which an eternal transcendent God seems to be the only satisfactory Thing in the category. Thus, if indeed the universe itself is not eternal--if it had a beginning--then its existence requires a cause (or Cause), and unless the cause of the universe itself is a necessary Being, then that cause also needs a prior cause (or Cause).

Now the precious Natural Selection that Dawkins worships so devoutly was postulated under the assumption (of Darwin's day) that the universe itself was eternal. But modern science has clearly disproved that notion. This is, of course, part of what Dawkins' disputants at Cambridge (mentioned by him late in the chapter) had in mind when they dismissed his argument as "nineteenth century," but Dawkins was, apparently, too dense to understand this.

To complete his fall from respectability (among critical thinkers), Dawkins acknowledges that he favors (as the explanation for the overwhelming appearance of design in the universe) the multiverse theory. This idea asserts that there exist an infinite number of other universes, and we happen to live in the one that is (by chance) so exquisitely designed to accomodate life. Such an appeal, of course, fails to solve the problem of the infinite regress, since those other universes are themselves contingent--not necessary--things. If many universes (or even a universe-making machine) exist(s), the question remains, what caused them (it)?

The finding of modern science that the universe had a beginning provided empirical verification for the philosophical position that has (for most of two millenia) provided powerful rational proof for God's existence. Dawkins' hand-waving dismissal of the cosmological and design arguments may have made him a tidy sum in royalties, but his childish central argument and his display of ignorance with regard to the rich history of these philosophical debates has caused him a significant loss of respect among those who expected this Oxford professor to offer something new, substantial, or (at least) reasonable to the issue of the existence of God.

But Dawkins' central argument will also afford me (in posts to come) the opportunity to make a couple more faith-strengthening points involving the evidence of modern science (another area about which Dawkins seems strangely ignorant).

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