Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Disingenuous Dawkins

I have previously decried the fact that Richard Dawkins, a scientist, is so unwilling to interact with any scientific evidence in his book The God Delusion. In the rare cases where he does appeal to evidence, he does so selectively and dishonestly. A case in point is his alleged refutation of the improbability of life (in chapter 4).

In one section--titled "The Anthropic Principle: Planetary Version"--Dawkins acknowledges that there are certain parameters that need to be fine-tuned for life support. A life-support planet must be in a habitable zone around its star, an area in which (at minimum) liquid water can exist. And a life-support planet must have a relatively circular orbit within that habitable zone. Based on a very small number of such parameters, Dawkins allows himself to conclude that...
even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets--of which Earth, of course, is one.
There are at least three fatal flaws to Dawkins' argument here, and we may be generous and attribute then to his ignorance of the subject or we may be more cynical and accuse him of disingenuity.

First, Dawkins confuses the conditions necessary for life to exist with the actualization of life. That is, he treats the conditions for life support and the origin of life as a single problem, whereas the latter is an entirely seperate--and extremely difficult (at least for the naturalist)--problem.

Secondly, in a very disingenuous move, he claims that the anthropic principle is a scientific explanation and that the opposing (non-scientific) explanation is an appeal to design. This is not an accurate portrayal of the case. The anthropic principle is a set of observations about the physical properties of the universe. It is an acknowedgement that many, many characteristics of the universe as a whole, of the Milky Way Galaxy, and of our solar system and its components are extremely fine-tuned in a way that allows for the existence of intelligent life (humans) in this one place in the universe. This is not (as Dawkins claims) a scientifc theory at all. Rather, it is a set of observations that any scientific theory about the universe needs to explain. One scientific theory that seems to do a very good job of explaining the anthropic principle says that these observations of apparent design are best explained by the existence of a transcendent Designer (and this theory also succeeds in explaining the beginning of the universe a finite time ago). Naturalists have no credible theory for either the anthropic principle or the beginning of the universe, and Dawkins' hand-waving bluster will not be persuasive with anyone who understands these things.

Thirdly, Dawkins' conclusion depends upon ignoring the vast number of such finely-tuned characteristics of the universe. Rather than the handful that he mentions, scientists have identified 128 characteristics of the galaxy and solar system that contribute to the improbability of life support. (This number is undoubtedly outdated, because this is such a fruitful field of research.) Astronomer Hugh Ross has compiled these parameters and--using extremely conservative probabilities--estimated the likelihood that all 128 parameters would occur. The result of this calculation is that...
less than 1 chance in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion exists that even one such [life-supporting] planet would occur anywhere in the universe.

1 comment:

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