Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dissecting Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, who is now apparently regarded as the poster boy of militant atheism, was recently dressed down by William Rees-Mogg in the "Times" for allegedly "taking the silliest arguments that have been used by the most ignorant people" in order to score his points against religion. In his peculiarly English way, Rees-Mogg tries to draw a distinction between fanatical Muslims and uncouth Yank evangelists on the one hand, and urbane clerical chaps such as the Archbishop of Canterbury on the other -- a distinction he believes Dawkins to have neglected entirely. Rees-Mogg also faults Dawkins for the latter's vehemence in expressing his opinions, which he seems to think shows bad form. There's a fair amount of lace-curtain gentility in this criticism that we can safely dismiss, but even apart from that I can't help but feel that Rees-Mogg has missed Dawkins's main point altogether. Dawkins's book The God Delusion aims to demonstrate the irrationality of every kind of religious faith -- regardless of whether or not that faith has managed to accommodate itself within the framework of a pluralistic, secular society.

It is certainly the case that Islamic suicide bombers are a greater threat to our safety than genial Anglican clergymen, but this consideration is outside the scope of The God Delusion. Dawkins wishes to draw our attention to the fact that belief in things such as the Virgin Birth or the seventy-two virgins promised to Islamic martyrs are equally unverifiable from a rational point of view, even if the former belief is much more aesthetically appealing and much less dangerous in its implications than the latter. We can't prove or disprove that either belief is true (though we may possibly reach certain conclusions about their veracity by examining the historical and textual circumstances surrounding them.) In the end, every act of faith requires the will to accept as fact something for which there is no empirical evidence. Dawkins contrasts this with the scientific method, which proceeds cautiously and judiciously towards discovering new facts about the world, and which is willing to subject itself to repeated tests and revisions.

As it happens I do believe in God, and so obviously I can't find Dawkins's arguments entirely persuasive. Where he is at his best is in demolishing the most fatuous reasons for believing in God, such as St. Anselm's ontological "proof" that proves nothing at all, or arguments such as the one that claims that God has to exist because, without him, there would be no hope for survival after death, and no punishment of the wicked. Simply conceiving that God exists, or fervently wishing for it, is not enough.

Dawkins is on somewhat weaker ground, though, when he attempts to deal with the idea of the "uncaused causer". While it's true that invoking God's existence necessarily raises the question of where God himself came from, a Godless universe must also have its own unexplained point of origin. The state of the universe prior to the Big Bang -- when it was allegedly compressed to such a degree that it had no attributes of space or time -- existed at least as a potentiality, and the cause of that potentiality remains unknown to us. So it doesn't seem totally unreasonable to define God as possibly being equal in age or in scope to the universe itself, while possessing the added characteristic of intelligence or will.

Dawkins also in my opinion inadequately addresses the implications of the so-called made widely known by the astronomer Martin Rees. According to Rees, even the slightest change to any one of six constants governing the basic properties of matter would have meant that life as we know it could never have arisen. Dawkins, in response, invokes the anthropic principle: it may seem unlikely to us that things should have turned out so propitiously, he says, but then again our perspective on the matter is skewed by the fact that we are here to consider the question at all. --Even the anthropic principle, though, does not address the staggering unlikelihood of our being here. That the universe should have arrived at its current state is so statistically unlikely that by rights it should never have happened. Dawkins, perhaps sensing that more is needed by the reader at this point, mentions the currently fashionable hypothesis of multiverses (i.e. multiple universes), an infinitely large number of which would, at least in one instance, result in the sort of cosmos we see today. I am not a physicist (and I hope that Rajeev, who is one, can explain the scientific rationale for this theory to me), but the "multiverse" hypothesis seems as if it is being used in this particular case as a kind of deus ex machina (without the deus, of course) by Dawkins as he hopes to avoid invoking God as a hypothesis for anything. Ultimately more questions are raised by this than are answered.

I found Dawkins to be uncharacteristically woolly and evasive on the topic of abortion, perhaps because those who are most vocal in opposition to it are the irrational religious types he is striving against. He makes a vague and wholly irrelevant reference to the fact that humans eat meat with very little compunction, as if inter-species predation had any bearing on ethical problems among humans. For a man who for so long has promoted the concept of the "selfish gene", he doesn't offer an explanation of how aborting one's offspring could work to advance the cause of natural selection. But Dawkins does at least concede that if scientific inquiry establishes the fact of fetal suffering during abortion (as I understand it already has done), this should influence our opinion of the procedure. In saying this, at least, he is far ahead of those whose entire justification of abortion rests on the abuse of weasel words such as "choice", and who prefer vilification to debate.

[This entry is getting a little long, so I'll have more to say about The God Delusion later.]


Chris said...

I think you missed something - spacetime came into existence with the big bang. There was no before because time didn't exist. This is something that laymen have trouble with. As Steven Hawkings once said, asking what came before the big bang is a little like asking what's north of the north pole.
(By the way, I'm a practicing physicist whose area of study is superstring theory)

Neil said...

It wouldn't be at all surprising if I had missed something, since this is not my area of expertise. Still, in my post I did clearly state that the universe prior to the Big Bang had "no attributes of space or time", so I don't think I can be faulted for saying exactly the opposite. (The use of "prior" was a little careless, I suppose.)

Where I may have overstepped my bounds was in wondering about the potentiality or set of conditions that could have caused the universe to come into being (and look how I've carefully avoided saying "before" in this sentence!) But a little Googling seems to indicate that at least some physicists are asking the very same question. There is, for example, the ekpyrotic theory -- yes? Or the researchers at Penn State who last year claim to have used quantum gravitational calculations to look "beyond" (their word, I'm afraid) the Big Bang? Or Roger Penrose's lectures at Cambridge (pleasingly available online in audio format) in which he entertained various cosmological models such as the cyclical conception of the universe ("Big Crunch"), the "sprouting" model from Smolin, as well as the ekpyrotic model? Very likely my understanding of all of this is incomplete; but I don't think that I have misunderstood it altogether.

P.S. I'd avoid using the word "layman", as its opposite is "clergyman" -- and the reputation of string theorists is dubious enough as it is. "Non-physicist" is a far better term.

Rajeev said...

Superstring theory has not really "produced the goods", Chris. Whenever I read something about superstring theory, the word epicycles spring to mind. Don't know why.
As far as the original blog post goes, an interesting entry (admittedly I'm biased here) but I do have to say that cause unknown does not equate to higher being. It simply says that our understanding is limited here and I suspect that the answer is unlikely to include said higher being.
God may exist but He doesn't seem to have anything to do in the Universe.