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 that...it 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 religion...hm.
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...