Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Dawkins' God by Alister McGrath: A Critical Look

This essay is a critical look at the ideas of Alister McGrath, who argues against some of Richard Dawkins' ideas. I will deal with the arguments that he uses agaisnt RD.

Chapter Two: The Blind Watchmaker

McGrath portrays Dawkins' ideas as being:
--Darwinism is necassarily atheistic
--Darwinism is the only way to explain the world because as God and other explanations(like Lamarckism) fail as explanatory principles. [Dawkins' reasoning goes along these lines: It either came about by "creation" or it came about by some form of "evolution". The mind first view(the creator) explains nothing, because it leaves us with the bigger problem of who created the craetor. Thus, we end up in an infinite regress of gods if we do not postulate some way of getting complexity from non-complexity, hence evolution.(see Dennett 1995;Dawkins 2006)]

McGrath has three objections to Dawkins' positions:
1. The Scientific method is incapable of proving or disproving God's existence. Science only deals with naturalistic explanations. If we are to answer the question of whether God exists, we cannot decide by science.
2. Just because God need not be invoked in the explanatory process of evolution doesn't mean he doesn't exist.
3. The "God as watchmaker" idea is an outdated view of God's creation and not typical of the Christian tradition.

Objection One
Dawkins would agree that one cannot prove/disprove the existence of God. But that does not mean that we cannot say anything about God by using science. If one wanted to be philosophical, one could argue that "we can't prove anything", or that we haven't proved any of our scientific theories correct, only that they are not false based on the evidence. As I argued in my article "Propositions and The Existence of God" the God Hypothesis makes predictions about reality, and thus can be tested using science. Withdrawing it form rational enquiry effectively makes God a meaningless idea. Thus, science can comment on the supernatural.
McGrath cites an example where 2 theores in science are equal, and we don't know which one is correct, but people decide which one is right. Firstly, they don't dogmatically assert which one is right, and the evidence will eventually be king when it comes in. Secondly, scientifically, theism and athiesm are not on the same footing; atheism is more parsimonious. It fits with more facts(eg. problem of evil, callousness of the universe, etc) and is less ad hoc than theism. If one is an atheist, a lot of facts are already explained.
Also, what other grounds are there to decide other than science? Personal experience? But we know people's personal experiences can contradict science. People can appear to percieve ESP or spirits even though there's no evidence those things are real.

Objection Two
If we don't need to invoke God as an explanatory principle for anything, and we have no evidence for his existence, it's pretty likely he doesn't exist. It is again, more parsimonius to postuate atheism.

Objection Three
I think that Mr McGrath has failed to note the millions of Christians who do believe in a creator who craeted the world instantaneously in 6 days. Besides, The Blind Watchmaker book is about evolution, at least for the most part. Most bits have very little to do with god(eg. his chapter on Steve Jay Gould's punctuated equilibria.)

Chapter Three: Proof And Faith

--Dawkins defines faith as belief without evidence.
--McGrath doesn't agree with this definition, and says that faith is based on the evidence, and cites and metions Christian Theologians to make his points.

The problem with this is that if faith was based on evidence, it would be called knowledge! McGrath doesn't even try to argue that belief in God is based on evidence. I mean, this is the point where you would expect the typical theistic arguments to come out, eg. Argument from Design or Anthropic Coinicidences, Dembski's Information Theory, Moral Arguments, Arguement from Beauty etc etc. And he makes none of these! I was a little surprised at that, because he has made the assertion that belief in God is based on evidence, without attempting to present any evidence.
Another problem with his arguments is that he does what he accuses Dawkins of doing in Chapter 2: picking a group unreperaentaive of Christians. Christian Theologians, in general, only speak to intelligent, well educated, moderate[in Biblical interpretation] Christians. They do not encompass the views of eg. your average Bible Belt fundamentalist.

--God could have designed the universe to be self sustaining.

I'll just hand over to the master Sam Harris on this point: "The fact that a bowdlerized evangelical Christianity can still be rendered compatible with science (because of the gaps in science and the elasticity of religious thinking) does not mean that there are scientific reasons for being an evangelical Christian."

--God doesn't need to be explained as he could just be a brute fact.

Occam's Razor. If God supposedly just exists, why can't the universe/multiverse/matter/energy just exist?

--Dawkins' atheism is overconfident and too brashly concluded, and he is too ferocious in promoting atheism.

So it isn't reasonable to believe that God doesn't exist becaus ethere's no evidence for it? Dawkins would change his mind if you gave him evidence(unlike a lot of believers.) And as for Dawkins promoting atheism, that's just the pot telling the kettle it's black. Yes, Dawkins promotes atheism as a rational worldview. But it often seems like if any atheist says "I don't believe in your delusions." they are a "militant atheist", which is just rubbish.

--RD doesn't know anything about Christian theology, so he shouldn't talk about it so rashly and openly.

Christian theology is not the same thing as the God Question. One can have read quite a lot on the existence of God and know jack all about Christian theology and its history(ie. Me.)

--radical theory change in science, one day the scientific ideas we believe to be true may turn out not to be so.

True. But variation, selection, reproduction = evolution.

--Dawkins is wrong to call religion a source of human misery. Athough religious people do evil, they also do good.
--Science has been used to research bombs and other ethically dubious things. Dawkins would say this is an abuse of science, so why can't evils commited in religion's name be abuses of religion?

Is it immoral to know how to manufacture a bomb? Technically, if you gave me the right equipment and chemicals, I could make TNT. It's immoral to drop a bomb(in most circumstances at least) but that's a different question.
Evils commited in the name of religion aren't abuses in the name of religion, because most of them are imbedded in the tenets of religion. eg. Islam says it is for the glory of Allah to kill unbelievers. How can it be an abuse of religion to follow this command? Jesus says you can cure people by exorcising demons. How can it be an abuse of religion to do this? Judaism says its just dandy to mutilate your kid's genitals. How is it an abuse of religion to do this? Immorality has nothing to do with the tenets of science, which is/should be (ethical as in not involving human rights abuses)research.

--"Stalin was an atheist"

Yeh, so? The Communists had dogma of their own.

Chaper Four: Cultural Darwinism

--Memetics is the theory of a cultural replicator that ispassed on by imitation.
--McGrath has some objectiosn to the theory of memetics:
1. There is nor reason to assume that cultural evolution is Darwinian, or that evolution has anything to do with culture. There is telelogy in memetics and some of it is Lamarckian.
2. There is no direct evidence for the existence of memes
3. the analogy between the meme and the gene is flawed
4. The meme is not needed as an explanatory hypothesis.

Objection One
There are some reasons to suggest a memetic view of culture. Blackmore's The Meme Machine has some interesting information on memetics, and some suggestions as to why it is a useful concept. It does explain some things not accounted for on other views, like a purely sociobiological one.(eg why do we have big brains? Why do we do so many things our genes "dislike" eg. Birth Control? Why is it so hard for us to stop thinking? Why do we talk constantly? etc)
Admittedly there is some telelogy in cultural evolution. But is this really any different from human breeders selecting the features that they like in an animal and breeding for it, ie "artificial selection"? Artifical selection doesn't invalidate evolution.
As for the Lamarckian charge, yes some cultural evolution could be described as Lamarckian or "copy-the-product". But this doesn't really matter, because the real idea behind the meme is that of a replicator. How that replicator does it is not relevant to whether memetics is valid.

Objection Two
Admittedly we don't know how memes are stored in the brain. But Darwin never knew how heredity worked, as he never read the works of Mendel. We someday may know where memes are stored. The evidence is not in on this one.
Besides, cultural replication by imitation exists. Thus memes exist.

Objection Three
There is no real problem of a false analogy. The idea is the idea of a replicator. It does not have to be a replicator analogous to the gene in every single way. In fact, everything else could be different. Provided memes are replicators, the analogy is fair.

Objection Four
As I mentioned above, Blackmore's book has some interseting work on how memetics explains things better than rival theories appear to.

Also, at one point, McGrath suggests that atheism and theism are both memes and thus both equally valid. This isn't nesacarily true. Athesim nor theism have to be memes. Memes are spread by imitation. I did not become an atheist by imitating other atheists, thus my athiesm is not a meme. The same could occur for theism. Religion is a meme, but "theism" merely most likely is. Of course, them both being memes doesn't put them both on the same footing. "The Earth is billions of years old" and "The Earth is 6,000 years old" are both memes that are obviously not equally valid.

Chapter Five: Science And Religion

--RD says Religion is a medieval and uninspiring way of looking at the universe, wheras science is a wonderful way of looking at everything.
--McGrath disagrees because he believs that religion can inspire awe and reverence of nature and creation.

This criteria is fairly subjective. Being as it is mainly aesthetics, it is down somewhat to opinion what a view inspires. I do agree with Dawkins somewhat on this point, because "because God" is not an inspiring answer to anything at all, wheras science is an interesting journey of discovery about the universe we live in. I don't believe I have grounds to say that my aesthetic opinion is "right" or better than anybody else's however.

I'm done with this. This does not critique every position put forward in Dawkins' God, just the main points. There were some things about this book that irritated me:
--It has some comments I would consider unnecassary that lowered the tone eg "Now perhaps Dawkins is too busy writing books agaisnt religion to allow him time to read works of religion."(pg.99) merely beacuse Dawkins isn't particularly well versed in the history of theology. I thought this comment was uncomfortably snarky. [yes, I know the "New Atheists" make snarky remarks, but they are usually aimed at people who deserve it and they are actually funny ;)] Also, he constantly uses words like "polemical", "rhetoric" to describe some of Dawkins' work. I just found it annoying, because Dawkins' work isn't rhetoric.
--A lot of his comments are hypocritical. He goes on about evidence based reasoning, and how great he thinks it is, but presents no evidence for God's Existence. He also says how Dawkins' arguments lead only to agnosticism. Fine, if you think that, but then why are you a Christian Theist? It's perhaps a reasonable comment for an agnostic to make, but he's a thesit.

I read this stuff so you don't have to, folks. :)

Works Referenced/mentioned:
McGrath, Alister. Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and The Meaning Of Life, Blackwell Publishing 2005.(obviously!)
Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press 1999.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion, Bantam Press 2006.
Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Press 1986.
Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Penguin Press 1995.

Sam Harris quotation comes from this address:

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