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Dawkins’ Central Argument

Somehow, I feel like I am beating a putrefied horse at this point. But I’ve had a few people challenge me on Dawkins and his central argument in the God Delusion So, I’ve decided it’s time to do analysis of Dawkins’ central argument. Here is (187-189 of my 2008 edition of the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect… has been to explain how the improbable appearance of design in the universe arise.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider, or a person.

3. The temptation is a false one, because the design hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a ‘crane,’ not a ‘skyhook,’ for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that — an illusion.

5. We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope for a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

My critique is as follows:

(1) it should be noted that premises (1)-(6) do not validly lead to the conclusion that God almost certainly does not exist. No rule of logic of which I am aware could get us to the conclusion. And this is despite the fact that Dawkins loads entire paragraphs into each premise. He can’t quite make valid connections between the premises, and several of the premises are not doing any work at all in the argument. For instance (1) is a prefatory remark more than a proper premise. (5) is simply an admission of ignorance, and (6) turns that admission if ignorance into an ad ignorantam fallacy by suggesting that an unknown crane explanation is preferable to the alternatives. To put it simply, all six premises could be true, and God could still exist. This is because Dawkins needs to argue not merely that crane explanations are needed or hoped for, but that they are the only game in town. I think this is where he wants to go, but asserting that is essentially begging the question. This leads to my next point…

(2) The argument hinges on a false dichotomy between reductive crane explanations, and skyhooks, which he defines as “magic spells” (99). Dawkins practically stipulates his way to victory on this point by telling his audience that crane explanations are the sort of explanations that actually explain things (Ibid.). So presumably out of the dichotomy between skyhooks and cranes, we are left with only reductive crane explanations, if we want any explanations at all. Of course, there is very little argumentation for there only being two sorts of explanation, and absolutely no argument for why God is a skyhook explanation. But, I think there are some non-reductive explanations that at least claim to explain. For instance, many physicalists will insist that they can offer a non-reductive explanation how consciousness supervenes on the brain. This would not be a simple to complex explanation, for then the physicalist would be stuck with a reductive theory. So Dawkins’ argument hinges on the failure of supervenience as a non-reductive explanation of consciousness (presumably the failure of any supervening explanation whatsoever). Other candidates for non-reductive non-magic spell explanations would include agent causation, and formal causation. One might be skeptical of all this, but the broader point is that Dawkins never proves that only cranes are true explanations, he borrows this from a reductionistic philosopher, Daniel Dennett, and asserts it in the middle of his argument as if it were uncontroversial. Of course, if we accept, without argument, that reductive crane explanations are the only explanations, then we have begged the argument away from God, for any sort of reductive monism is incompatible with theism to begin with. Not that all atheists accept crane explanations alone, but only atheists would accept crane explanations alone.

(3) Dawkins says that any design inference raises a larger problem of who designed the designer. The problem is that neither his atheistic world-view, nor the theistic world-view would insist that every designer was designed. He freely admits that the creator of the watch, the watchmaker, was a person who was not designed. Likewise, the theist holds that God is eternal and uncaused, so without the need for design. So no one seems to actually hold to an “all designers need designers” thesis. Some theists, not all, might argue that the watchmaker needs a designer, but not in virtue of being a designer, but in virtue of being created or contingent. So the question would be whether the need for a designer in the case of the watchmaker transfers over to a God. However, theists reason that God is not a contingent biological life form, so the analogy breaks down.

(4) Dawkins also says that it is no solution (explanation?) to the probability of x, if y must be postulated to explain x, and y is even more improbable than x. But, he has given us no reason to think God is more improbable than the universe. He merely hints that this is what we should think. But isn’t the conclusion that God is improbable? That’s what I take “almost certainly doesn’t exist” to mean. So once again, Dawkins is vague enough that the argument is a non sequitur, but if you fill in the gaps, it’s implicitly question begging. An alternative is that a highly improbable event x might raise the probability of y as the explanation. We simply cannot know. But the answer is going to look like something more akin to Bayes’ formula than Dawkins’ sloppy and vague assertions.

In summary: Dawkins’ central argument is invalid, several premises do no work, and the crucial premises only do some work if we make certain question begging assumptions.