Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The God Delusion: The Second 100 Pages

Last night, I made a post about the first 100 pages of The God Delusion. I've read farther since then, and I suppose now is as good a time as any to post about my impression of the second 100 pages. (Incidentally, I do not expect to make another post about the third 100 pages; I'll probably wrap up the remainder of the book in a single post. I'll already have given my general impression of the book in these two posts, after all, unless there's something in the latter half to drastically change it, so I probably won't have as much to say about the rest of the book.)

Before beginning, though, I want to give a word of explanation about why I may come across as so critical of the book in these posts. It's not because I don't like it; I'm quite enjoying the read. But I do have my reservations about it, and if I focus in these posts more on the negatives than the positives it's for two reasons. First, because, well, there's simply not as much to say about the positives; I could just repeat approvingly Dawkins' arguments that I liked, but I don't see much point in that; you can read them in the book yourself. The second reason is simply because I haven't really seen much criticism of Dawkins' book from a non-religious perspective; there's plenty of praise of it, but I've seen little real analysis. So, to reiterate, I liked the book (or anyway, I like it so far). I'm not focusing on the negatives because they outnumber or overwhelm the positives, but simply because there's more to say about them, and less that's been said.

Okay, now, having said does seem to me, at least, that the mocking tone I noted in the first 100 pages is much less prominent thereafter (or maybe I'd just grown inured to it, but I don't think so). Perhaps Dawkins got that out of his system in the book's beginning. As to the other matter I mentioned in the previous post, however, that of his alleged misunderstanding of

Let me get out of the way, first, a relatively minor objection, before I move on to something I feel is more significant. Dawkins makes another mention of Mormonism, a subject on which, having been raised Mormon myself and having until relatively recently considered myself a faithful Mormon, I feel perhaps somewhat qualified to comment upon. And...I think what he says about Mormonism is here somewhat misinformed, though it perhaps throws a little light on his then-mystifying suggestion earlier in the book that perhaps Mormonism should be counted as a fourth major Abrahamic religion.

(Technically, by the way, this mention appears on page 201, so I'm cheating a little with my stated focus on the "second 100 pages". But...well, close enough.)

Here's the relevant quotation: "Another candidate for a purely designed religion is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, its enterprisingly mendacious inventor, went to the lengths of composing a complete new holy book, the Book of Mormon, inventing from scratch a whole new bogus American history, written in bogus seventeenth-century English. Mormonism, however, has evolved since it was fabricated in the nineteenth century and has now become one of the respectable mainstream religions of America..."

First of all, there's good reason to believe that Joseph Smith did not, in fact, invent his "new bogus American history" from scratch--there had already existed a very popular book, View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith, that argued for the supposed descent of Native Americans from Israelite immigrants, and included many other ideas later to appear in the Book of Mormon. To what extent Joseph Smith was familiar with View of the Hebrews and copied material from it may be impossible to prove, but it seems quite likely he was familiar with it (the book's author had even visited his hometown), and there are some very suggestive similarities.

But that's really beside the point, and has no bearing on Mormonism's status as a "purely designed religion". Far more significant is the fact that Mormonism was already undergoing drastic change even in the beginning, under Joseph Smith's leadership. Dawkins seems to be implying that Joseph Smith laid out his religious precepts all in one go, and then only after his death did the doctrines start to evolve and change. (Granted, he doesn't directly say this, and maybe I'm reading too much into his words, but that's what it seems to me he's saying.) But that's not the case at all. In the church's early days, Mormon doctrine was constantly being revised and added to. The Book of Mormon itself sticks quite close to the traditional Protestant theology Joseph Smith was raised in; most of the more esoteric Mormon doctrines that most set the church apart from the mainstream are nowhere to be found in the Book of Mormon, and are pretty clearly later developments. The core Mormon doctrines were not set forth all at once by Joseph Smith; it's pretty clear he was making things up as he went along, fitting them to his situation, and constantly revising.

Granted, it's still arguably true that most of the core tenets of the church were originally the work of one man (Joseph Smith), even if he did change his mind over time and adapt them to circumstances, and even if some later church leaders did make their own lesser changes and revisions. But then, it could be argued about as cogently that most of the core tenets of Christianity were originally the work of Paul of Tarsus to a comparable degree, so if one could argue that Mormonism is a "purely designed religion" one could make a similar argument about Christianity. I get the impression Dawkins has some rather major misconceptions about Mormonism (which, again, may explain why he thinks it's somehow different or important enough to qualify as a fourth "'great' monotheistic religion"). And I admit this does give me some pause; if he's misinformed about the religion I'm most familiar with, perhaps he makes mistakes regarding other religions as well, that I don't recognize because I'm not sufficiently familiar with those religions myself.

But I honestly don't think this matter is important, because Dawkins' target isn't Mormonism or any other specific creed, but religion and supernaturalism in general, and he doesn't have to be closely familiar with the doctrines of individual religions for that. What's more important is that when Dawkins makes what he considers "a very serious argument against the existence of God", and he fails with this argument to convince any theologians, he doesn't seem to understand why. This suggests a definite failure on Dawkins' part to understand the religious mindset. And it wouldn't be such a big deal, perhaps, except that, well, this argument, by Dawkins' own statement, he considers part of "the central argument of [his] book".

The argument in question Dawkins calls "the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit", and goes as follows: The appearance of design in the universe--including, but not limited to, the existence and diversity of complex life forms--is enormously statistically improbable. This improbability can be explained by natural selection. However, if one posits instead a designer to explain it away, then the designer must be even more complex than what one is trying to explain in the first place, and therefore even more improbable. Therefore, as the chapter heading states, "there almost certainly is no God."

Dawkins tells of a conference at Cambridge in which he made this argument to a number of theologians. By Dawkins' account, the theologians were unable to counter this argument in any satisfactory way: "The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?"

I wonder, though, how much of the theologians' failure to answer Dawkins' argument was due to their refusal to seriously consider it, and how much, really, was rather due to Dawkins' refusal to seriously consider their responses. Because, honestly, Dawkins' argument strikes me as enormously unsatisfactory and unconvincing. I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in God because I don't see any good reason to believe in God, and in the absence of evidence disbelief is the default. I believe God almost certainly doesn't exist, for the same reason I believe Russell's teapot almost certainly doesn't exist--not because it's inherently impossible, but because there's no evidence of its existence and that it should happen to be there is quite unlikely. (And really, with the utter lack of evidence of God's existence, trying to find evidence of God's nonexistence seems almost superfluous.) But I don't think Dawkins' "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit" does anything to further establish God's nonexistence. In fact, I don't think Dawkins' "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit" makes much sense at all.

What's wrong with the argument? Well, that's kind of hard to address explicitly. I would say of Dawkins' argument the same thing that Dawkins quotes Bertrand Russell as having said about St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God: "It is easier to feel that [the argument] must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies." (In fact, the "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit" strikes me as so completely inane that I'm almost tempted to say what Dawkins quotes Jefferson as having said about the Trinity: "Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions." But that's probably going a little too far...) Still, Dawkins did eventually go on to try to pick out the flaw in the ontological argument, whatever his initial impression of its vapidity, and I'll attempt the same for his Ultimate 747 gambit.

The main flaw, I think, lies in the fact that Dawkins is assuming that God must work the same way as known biological creatures. It is this that seems to lie behind his assertion that God must be more complex than his creations. I can conceive of alternatives--I don't believe them, but I can conceive of them. For instance: What if consciousness does have some special sort of nonphysical existence, some sort of being apart from matter and ability to influence its surroundings? Again, I'm not saying I believe that, and the evidence is certainly against it, but it is conceivable. And what if God is just a big mass of omnipotent consciousness (whatever that means), with no particular form or makeup? Even so, how would such an entity have come into existence? Well, it would certainly involve things beyond our understanding, but then again, there are things beyond our understanding. Maybe the real working of consciousness is one of those things, and some mass consciousness is not only possible, but actually simple, in the sense that it could have (in some currently not understood way) have arisen out of nothing--or, better yet, be inherent to the universe and have perforce always existed, a necessary consequence of natural principles that simply aren't yet understood. It's easy to dismiss all this as meaningless babble, but I don't think it's quite that cut and dry; I think such a dismissal really amounts to a refusal to admit to possibilities we don't yet understand--and, given the number of things in the sciences we don't yet understand, I think that's a dangerous attitude for a scientist.

Again, I want to emphasize that I don't actually believe the possibilities raised in the previous paragraph. I tend to agree with Dawkins that the existence or nonexistence of God is, in principle, a scientific question, and I think if God existed we'd have some evidence of it (which we do not). And we have a perfectly good alternate explanation, in the form of natural selection (and perhaps not yet understood analogues in the nonbiological sciences) for the existence of all that statistical improbability; appealing to a God, simple or not, is not necessary. (And such an appeal certainly has no real explanatory power, since it could be used to hand-wave away anything at all.) I don't think God really is a formless mass consciousness--or exists at all.

But it is conceivable that a God could exist who is "simple" in the sense that his existence could be explained by some way other than appealing to extreme improbabilities (even if it involves principles we don't currently understand). It isn't necessarily the case that a creator God must be more statistically improbable than the world he created, if we allow that that God may have come into existence (or may have been required to have always existed) by laws and processes we don't currently understand--and I'm certainly not willing to state categorically that there are no laws and principles we don't currently understand. In essence, it seems to me that Dawkins' Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit amounts ultimately to nothing more than an Argument from Personal Incredulity--which is somewhat ironic, since Dawkins coined that term.

Once again, I am certainly not arguing that God exists. I agree with Dawkins' conclusions--albeit for different reasons. I just have problems with this particular one of Dawkins' arguments. And really, this wouldn't be such a big deal--it's just one argument among many, after all--if Dawkins himself didn't make so much of this argument, and, again, hold it up as part of "the central argument of [his] book". If his central argument is that vacuous, that's a bit of a problem. And if it's really the case that Dawkins "ha[s] yet to hear a theologian give a convincing answer despite numerous opportunities and invitations to do so", that seems to me to say more about Dawkins, and his apparent refusal to consider esoteric (but conceivable) possibilities, than about the theologians.

(As a side note--not really terribly relevant, perhaps, but possibly interesting--I'll mention that Mormon doctrine does purport to give an explanation of God's origin--albeit not a particularly productive one. It's one of the more arcane bits of Mormon theology that isn't generally explained to prospective converts (perhaps for fear of scaring them away with something so radical), but it's there. According to LDS doctrine, God was once a human, who went through a mortal life just as we're doing now, and remained faithful to the necessary principles so that he proved himself worthy of eventually being elevated to godhood--just as the humans of this world may, if they follow the necessary commandments, go through the necessary ordinances, and take upon themselves the necessary covenants. By implication, when God was a mortal, he had worshipped his own heavenly father, another God who, presumably, had also once been a mortal, spirit child of a previous God, and so on, and so forth. So, of course, this doesn't really explain anything--it's just turtles all the way down.)

Again, I feel like I'm probably coming across as terribly critical here, and I don't want to give the impression that I disliked the book. I didn't; I've enjoyed the book quite a bit. But, unfortunately, I do think it's flawed. I have been disappointed, but that's largely because of my high expectations; it's still well worth reading, even if it isn't perfect. (Then again, what is?)

Ah, well. On to the rest of the book...


At 8/14/2007 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and in the absence of evidence disbelief is the default. "

This may be where you and I differ. Why isn't non-belief rather than disbelief the default? Why are you not an agnostic? Particular representations of God might be presumed to not exist, by the evidence. But how can we conclude that no type of God exists by the absence of evidence that one does? Sometimes the correct answer is "I don't know".

At 8/14/2007 5:43 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Wow, Mormons believe that God was once human and was elevated to Godhood? You've got to be pulling our legs. I mean, come on! Once a God, did he have to create his own universe, complete with Earth, animals, humans, etc too? Does he still worship his previous god? Yikes, turtles indeed.

At 8/14/2007 7:59 PM, Blogger snowpunter said...

A minor quibble about View of the Hebrews and its possible influence on Smith. While the book was popular and Smith may have had access to one, the idea that he plagiarized vast portions of View into the Book of Mormon is as old an anti-Mormon argument as it is ludicrous.

I would be curious to see information behind the claim that Ethan Smith visited Palmyra. I'm aware of connections between Cowdery and Ethan Smith but not of any visit during Joseph Smith's tenure in New York. If you have any information I'd be curious to see it.

At 8/14/2007 11:12 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

I never said that Joseph Smith plagiarized vast portions of View of the Hebrews, only that he may have taken some of his basic ideas from it.

The claim that Ethan Smith had visited Palmyra comes from this page. But, admittedly, I haven't checked up on its sources, and I don't know for sure it's accurate.

In any case, I don't really know enough about the whole matter to really have a strong opinion one way or the other. I only meant to raise it as a possibility, not to claim that it was necessarily the case.

At 8/14/2007 11:23 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Particular representations of God might be presumed to not exist, by the evidence. But how can we conclude that no type of God exists by the absence of evidence that one does? Sometimes the correct answer is "I don't know".

The problem is that the same argument can be pursued substituting just about anything else for "God". How can we conclude that no type of dragon exists by the absence of evidence that one does? How can we conclude that no kind of ghost exists from the absence of evidence that one does? How can we conclude that no kind of tooth fairy exists from the absence of evidence that one does? After all, none of those can be conclusively disproven either--though certainly none of them seem very likely.

If you're as willing to be as agnostic about dragons, ghosts, tooth fairies, etc., as you are about gods--and for that matter as agnostic about Zeus, Thor, and Shiva as you (presumably) are about the Judeo-Christian God...well, then I suppose at least you're being consistent, though I don't think you'd find it easy to really live up to all that. The correct answer is indeed "I don't know"--but if we don't know, it's more rational to tend toward disbelief.

Put another way, the probability that God exists seems low enough that, even though I don't claim to be absolutely sure that a God doesn't exist, it seems more rational to behave as though one doesn't. And if admitting that there is a possibility (however slight) that God exists makes me an agnostic rather than an atheist--well, then Dawkins is an agnostic too, and in fact I think you'd find very few, if any, genuine atheists. But that renders the word rather meaningless...

At 8/14/2007 11:39 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Wow, Mormons believe that God was once human and was elevated to Godhood? You've got to be pulling our legs.

'Fraid not. Since it's not a part of the doctrine Mormons tend to want to share with nonbelievers, there's not much about it on the official church website, and most of the sources where it's expounded aren't available on the web, but you can see this page from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (which, despite the disclaimer at the top, is pretty close to being official).

It's not something that's dwelled on or that church leaders claim to know the details of, though, so there aren't really answers to many more in-depth questions about it. As far as whether he had to create his own universe, though...well, the idea is that he created this world, at least, if not this whole universe.

At 8/15/2007 2:45 AM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

However, the "Ultimate Boeing" argument is directed at those who expressly claim that the Universe must have been created by a complex designer. I don't think I've ever met anyone who postulates a designer god which is simple. Certainly I've never met anyone who told me about said simple designer god.

Consider that argument a screwdriver; it's not meant to hammer nails. Considering the vast number of theistic arguments, atheists have to have a whole set of retorts.

And for most atheists - including Dawkins - "I don't know" IS the position. Have you got to his 1-7 scale yet? He doubts many atheists are on the 7: there IS no god, I'm convinced, and nothing could change my mind (he puts himself on 6), whereas many believers are indeed on 1: God exists, I'm convinced, and nothing could budge me.

For most of us, Asimov's quote applies (emphasis added):

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I've been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn't have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I'm a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time.

At 8/15/2007 6:33 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

So, when do the church leaders tell you that one of their (and your) beliefs is that God was once human?

At 8/15/2007 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An Anonymous Coward said...
If you're as willing to be as agnostic about dragons, ghosts, tooth fairies, etc., as you are about gods--and for that matter as agnostic about Zeus, Thor, and Shiva as you (presumably) are about the Judeo-Christian God...

Me again. I wish I had as much eloquence as you in explaining my position. I'm not agnostic about the God of Abraham, or Zeus, Thor, etc. I'm certain that they are as imaginary as Russell's teapot. But demonstrating the nonexistence of "the elephant in my living room" and concluding that nothing like an elephant can exists anywhere in the universe seems like an illogical leap to me.
That is I'm atheistic about Jehovah but agnostic about the existence of a "god" whose defining characteristics are still being nailed down by discussion.

At 8/22/2007 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What be happening is the exercise of the brain ,that as which you exercise it upon is in truth of little concern ....hence dont give such great thought ...if you have a hundred people each can give a variety of opionions on one or other slubjects ...give thought of course to give opinion ..yet understand true purpose of brain that you can understand ( purpose of creation) ....if one has open brain,unto power of creation,then understanding as experiences shall come as aid your important as must you keep an open heart, in the sense be balanced in compassion as humility..if it proves one having qualities able to balance emotions, then it be one not only go through process of spiritual development for self but almighty as allah will use you as a means in the teaching others. Reaching such this stage one goes through some grim periods, yet it to be impuities depart from your being as becoming servant of creation,mparted understanding as experiences that one will use only to benifit others upon journey of humanities *spiritual development.

At 8/23/2007 4:51 PM, Blogger Lifewish said...

But how can we conclude that no type of God exists by the absence of evidence that one does?

Basically, we can claim that a God doesn't exist anywhere inside (or outside) the universe to precisely the same extent that we can claim Russell's Teapot doesn't exist anywhere inside (or outside) the universe. That stance gets called various names: anything from agnosticism through weak atheism to just plain atheism. The linguistic ambiguity is great enough that any of these is acceptable.

The fundamental stance here is "I don't know for sure, but I certainly don't have any evidence for it". Whether you call yourself "weak atheist" or "strong agnostic" just depends on which clause you prefer to emphasise.

At 8/26/2007 2:27 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

However, the "Ultimate Boeing" argument is directed at those who expressly claim that the Universe must have been created by a complex designer. I don't think I've ever met anyone who postulates a designer god which is simple. Certainly I've never met anyone who told me about said simple designer god.

I'm afraid the text of the book contradicts you on both counts. Dawkins is quite clear that his "Ultimate Boeing" argument is intended against any claim of a designer god. And Dawkins himself relates that the theologians at the conference did explicitly claim that the designer god they worshipped was simple.

Dawkins' contention is that a designer god cannot possibly be simple; that any designer god must necessarily be complex--that is, must necessarily be statistically improbable, which is what's meant by "complex" in that context. But it's a contention he never backs up. He barely bothers to marshal even the most perfunctory attempt at establishing its validity. Maybe he considers it so self-evident that it doesn't need to be proven. But it's not, and without that premise having been established, his whole argument falls apart.

At 8/26/2007 2:29 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

So, when do the church leaders tell you that one of their (and your) beliefs is that God was once human?

Eh...that's hard to say. It's not like there's a specific schedule: "All right, you've been a member for six months now; it's time to share with you the [wiggling fingers] deep secrets of God's history." It's just one of those things that isn't taught to prospective members but that members eventually hear about when it comes up in Sunday School or in some other context.

At 8/26/2007 2:35 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

That is I'm atheistic about Jehovah but agnostic about the existence of a "god" whose defining characteristics are still being nailed down by discussion.

But you ignored the first part of my reply. Are you just as agnostic about the existence of a "dragon" or the existence of a "tooth fairy"?

We have reason to believe there are elephants elsewhere, even if there are none in the living room. We have no reason to believe in the existence of a god. And if you're willing to admit as a significant possibility the existence of anything you don't have reason to believe in...there are a whole lot of things besides gods that applies to.

Again, as I said in the last paragraph of my reply to you--and as "The Ridger, FCD" said in more detail further down--yes, "I don't know" is the default position. Agreed. I don't know for sure whether or not there is a god. But there are a whole lot of other things I don't know for sure don't exist either. I don't know for sure there isn't a god somewhere in the universe. I don't know for sure there isn't a two-headed unicorn. For that matter, I don't know for sure there isn't an "anti-God" who will punish anyone who believes in him. I can't act as if everything exists that I don't know for sure does, and in the absence of evidence for something's existence, it's more rational to behave as if it doesn't.

Sure, I don't know for sure that God doesn't exist. But I have no reason to believe he does, and it seems more likely that he doesn't.

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